In the run up to the General Election on 7 May, our Business Immigration team will answer some of the most topical immigration issues being raised by UK voters. Party policies in response to immigration could have an important effect on a number of businesses, as well as the UK economy in general. Over the next 10 days, we will look at matters including individual party approaches to immigration, the effect of immigration on the UK, and any immigration changes.

We will answer one question per day. Each answer will be posted below as our team makes them available.

1. What effect would a Labour-SNP coalition have on UK immigration?

Whilst the Labour Party has up until now denied any intention of a coalition with the SNP, it may not have much of a choice come 7th May. Labour has made controlling immigration one of its key election promises (producing a souvenir mug to prove it!) and Miliband has apologised for immigration-related “mistakes” by the former Labour government. In its manifesto, the party has outlined the following steps that it proposes to take in order to control immigration, although they lack enough detail to determine their likely prospects of success:

  • Low skilled migration has been too high and needs to come down.
  • Stronger action will be taken to stop illegal immigration, starting with making the UK’s borders stronger by the introduction of more staff and full exit checks.
  • There has been a dramatic increase in the number of short term student visit visas and so the system will be tightened to prevent abuse. At the same time, university students will be welcomed.
  • The cap on non-EU workers will be maintained.
  • Low skilled migration to be reduced through the introduction of a new law to stop employers undercutting wages by “exploiting workers”. Recruitment agencies will be banned from hiring only from overseas.

It is possible that a coalition with the SNP – or any of the other smaller parties – may see Labour taking a softer stance. The SNP appears from recent debates to favour a more relaxed immigration regime. Although the SNP manifesto refers to “sensible immigration policies that meet our economic needs”, it is markedly lacking in specific proposals other than the reintroduction of the post-study work visa, which allowed non-EEA graduates from UK universities to work for two years following their studies.

A recent rather alarmist report by the right-wing think tank Migration Watch claims that immigration levels would “spiral out of control” under a Labour-SNP coalition. In practice, however, drastic changes to the current system are unlikely for fear of losing public approval for what may already prove to be a controversial partnership (particularly given that immigration does not now appear to feature highly on either party’s legislative agenda).

2. Will the Conservatives attract the best and the brightest workers to the UK?

The Conservatives have frequently stated their commitment to attracting the brightest and the best to the UK, but what have they done in this respect and what are their plans for the future?

The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa has been in place since 2011 but has had an extremely low take-up because, as the name suggests, it is aimed at the very highest skill level. Applicants must show that they have been endorsed as an internationally recognised leader or emerging leader in their field of science, humanities, engineering, medicine, digital technology or the arts. Not just possessing high-level skills, therefore, but widely recognised as doing so.

recent report by Techworld reveals that only 160 applications were submitted under the visa scheme in the 12 months to April 2015. Of these, 106 were endorsed, 37 rejected and 17 were still under review. Tech City UK (a Government quango tasked with supporting UK technology businesses) endorsed only seven visas.

Many argue that that the closure of the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) visa in 2012 exacerbated a shortage of skilled workers with STEM backgrounds and this was highlighted by the recent All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration’s inquiry into the issue. The Chair of the inquiry, Labour MP Paul Blomfield, commented: “The report lays bare the negative impact that closure of the former post-study work visa has had on British businesses and universities. Alternative visa routes have failed to attract talent and have actually prevented skilled graduates from contributing to the UK jobs market.”

In December 2014, Theresa May also announced plans (albeit later withdrawn) to prevent non-EEA graduates of UK universities from switching into Tier 2 sponsorship with employers from within the UK (for more information see our blog posting).

In short, these strategies mean that the UK has become far less attractive for talented international students than the US, Australia and Canada that have all retained a graduate visa system. The number of international students applying to study degree level or higher qualifications in the UK has decreased dramatically over the past few years as the “brightest and best” that the Conservatives wanted to attract have simply started to apply to study elsewhere.

As for future plans, the Conservative manifesto makes no mention of any new policies designed to attract the brightest and the best, from which we conclude that little or no progress will be made in that respect.