The UK Government’s attempt to loosen immigration rules

By Amer Zaman

on November 4, 2022

Read Time: 7 Minutes

For observers who might be inclined to wonder whether the Liz Truss ‘era’ of UK Government – however long it lasts – will see the apparent national obsession with immigration policy in any way relent, we’re afraid to say that particular debate probably won’t go away.

Indeed, there is evidence that the ever-sensitive talking point of immigration might have even become more complicated than may have seemed the case just a few years ago. Recent news headlines have indicated that the still only recently appointed Prime Minister could be set to loosen the country’s approach to immigration to help stimulate economic growth. But what about such stories is fact and fiction, and what should potential migrants to the UK know about the putative change in approach?

How could UK immigration policy reportedly change under Truss?

In late September, reports filtered through in publications such as The Guardian, indicating that Liz Truss was interested in loosening the UK’s immigration rules to help bring about economic growth, on the backdrop of fears about a potentially looming recession.

The news outlets suggested that with employers continuing to be greatly concerned about labour shortages potentially stymying their growth prospects, the Prime Minister was set to respond by expanding the Government’s shortage occupations list. The idea is apparently that this will help reduce bureaucracy faced by businesses interested in hiring overseas talent in order to fill their vacancies.

It has also been reported that Ms Truss is interested in streamlining “intra-company transfers”, which is the arrangement by which a multinational firm transfers a skilled worker from a foreign country into the UK on a temporary basis. But, in a nod to the wishes of many pro-Brexit voters, “allies” of the Prime Minister were also reported as saying that it was a priority of hers to crack down on “unskilled” immigration. In addition, she was reported to be worried about an influx of people coming to the UK as relatives of overseas students.

How likely is it that looser UK immigration rules will actually happen?

Debate among informed observers has centred on not only the practical effect changes to the UK immigration rules could have in making the recruitment of foreign workers easier for employers, but also the prospects of such changes happening at all.

Writing for the Free Movement website, for example, the UK immigration expert Joanna Hunt described the notion of amending the shortage occupation list as “one of those easy political mantras that gets trotted out by politicians wanting to look like they have solutions to immigration problems.”

Ms Hunt pointed out that the role of the shortage occupation list within the Skilled Worker visa system had already been diminished since that visa’s rebranding and reformation in late 2020. She also drew attention to the fact that a review of the shortage occupation list by the Migration Advisory Committee had already been commissioned, but that the scope of the review was “fairly limited”, and the Committee had already been expressly told that lower-skilled roles would only be added to the list in exceptional circumstances.

That situation might seem a shame, given that the addition of lower-skilled workers to the list earlier in 2022 was arguably a positive step forward. Modification of the shortage occupation list would certainly seem to offer scope to ease organisations’ recruitment worries, and therefore to help fuel economic growth, but the chances of all the necessary changes actually being made would seem to be much lower.  

This is partly because, as reported by The Telegraph in late September, several Brexit-supporting cabinet ministers – including the now ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Jacob Rees-Mogg – have expressed opposition to the prospect of allowing immigration levels to climb to help boost economic growth.

And it seemed at the time that those close to the Prime Minister were wary of the need to placate such ministers. “Downing Street sources” were quoted as saying that the aim was changes to the mix of immigration to the UK, rather than an overall rise in immigration, explaining: “That will involve increasing numbers in some areas and decreasing in others. As the Prime Minister has made clear, we also want to see people who are economically inactive get back into work.”

With Ms Braverman having since left her role as Home Secretary and been replaced by Grant Shapps – supposedly due to her use of a personal email account to send an official document to another MP in what would be a breach of ministerial rules – it remains to be seen whether her departure will make a softening of immigration policy more likely.

Does the public support the idea of loosening UK immigration rules?  

At the time of the European Union (EU) membership referendum in 2016, Ms Truss voiced support for the notion of the UK remaining in the bloc. However, in more recent years, she has aligned herself strongly with the pro-Brexit movement, which is generally associated with a wish to lower levels of immigration to the UK.  

Unsurprisingly, then, not everyone in Ms Truss’s governing Conservative Party seems enthusiastic about the prospect of loosened immigration rules.

An unnamed Conservative MP was quoted as saying by The Guardian in late September that many new voters for the party in “red wall” constituencies would be baffled by any moves to make UK immigration rules less stringent, stating: “The Government is going to have to explain to those people who thought we were a pro-Brexit Government and want to curb immigration, why we seem to be changing tack.”

There is also evidence, however, of much of the UK public taking a more nuanced attitude to immigration than this in 2022. Recent data from the Immigration Attitudes Tracker published by Ipsos and British Future indicated that public support for reducing immigration is actually now at its lowest level since the tracker survey first began to be published in 2015. The think tank suggested that the UK public would give “pragmatic permission” for the loosening of immigration controls if this was done for people coming to the UK to fill certain vacancies in fields such as agriculture, health, and social care. So, there would seem to be some political headroom for Ms Truss and her new Home Secretary to work with on this issue, if they do decide to go ahead with a less strict immigration approach.

What Suella Braverman’s resignation means for the UK’s future approach to immigration

On Wednesday 19th October, it emerged that Ms Braverman had resigned as Home Secretary. Adding to growing turmoil at the top of Liz Truss’s Government, the MP for Fareham’s exit from the role was ostensibly as a result of her use of a personal email to send a fellow MP an official document, which happened to be a draft written statement on migration.

In a letter to the Prime Minister addressing her resignation, Ms Braverman touched on her discontent over immigration policy in her expression of “concerns about the direction of this government”. She stated: “Not only have we broken key pledges that were promised to our voters, but I have had serious concerns about this Government’s commitment to honouring manifesto commitments, such as reducing overall migration numbers and stopping illegal migration, particularly the dangerous small boats crossings.”

Ms Braverman’s departure makes her easily the shortest-serving Home Secretary in modern UK political history. She was in post for just 43 days, with the next-shortest tenure in the list being that of Donald Somervell, who was in the position for 62 days in Winston Churchill’s caretaker government in 1945, prior to its defeat in that year’s general election.

Appointed in Ms Braverman’s place as leader of the Home Office has been Grant Shapps, who – compared to her predecessor’s hardened right-wing and pro-Brexit stance – supported a ‘remain’ vote in the EU referendum, and is associated with the more moderate “One Nation” movement of Conservatism. Such moderation is believed to extend to his attitudes towards immigration, although his voting record in the Commons is still generally one of support for stronger enforcement of immigration rules.

Mr Shapps briefly put himself forward as a candidate in the Conservative Party leadership contest during the summer, before quitting and throwing his weight behind ultimate runner-up, Rishi Sunak. He had argued back then in favour of continuing with the then-Home Secretary Priti Patel’s agreement with Rwanda to deport asylum seekers to the central African country, pledging: “I would not only have the policy, I would do it properly and make sure it happens.”

However, with Ms Truss’s government so shaken lately by ministerial departures and all-round chaos at Westminster, it remains to be seen whether Mr Shapps will continue voicing the same level of support for such a divisive policy – or whether he will even last long enough in post to see through the loosening of other immigration controls.

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