Migration levels to the UK are “too high” according to Rishi Sunak. But too high according to what benchmark? Yes, net migration hit a record high for the year ending December 2022 – 606,000 more people arrived to live in the UK last year than emigrated – but on what basis is the prime minister claiming this is too much?
It’s important to be clear why these figures are higher than usual. They are the entirely foreseeable outcome of conscious decisions by Sunak and his predecessors in Downing Street: a feature, not a bug of government policy. First, the government has rightly introduced humanitarian resettlement schemes for refugees fleeing Ukraine and for British National (Overseas) status holders from Hong Kong. Second, the government has significantly liberalised immigration rules for people coming from outside the UK following Brexit.
The salary requirement for skilled worker visas has been dropped by £4,000 a year, minimum qualification levels have been dropped to include mid-skill jobs, and the government has the option to open up visas in low-paid sectors where there are significant shortages, like in the care sector. The system of student visas has also been changed so that international students can stay to work in the UK, without being sponsored for a visa, for up to two years after they graduate, and bring dependents with them to the UK.
There are no good arguments that stack up the idea this is “too many”. The Ukrainian and Hong Kong schemes are part of the UK fulfilling its international obligations to refugees; if anything, they should be complemented by more resettlement schemes for refugees from other parts of the world. The liberalisation of the economic requirements for worker visas are necessary to fill acute labour and skill shortages in the UK; last year, more than half of visas went to people working in the NHS and social care. The rules around student visas were relaxed by ministers to allow universities to become more internationally competitive when it comes to attracting students from abroad.
In the long term, government urgently needs to invest more in the underfunded system of adult and further education, to address skills gaps, but there is a basic equation that politicians are not being honest with us about. In an ageing society like ours, with falling birth rates, there’s going to be a decreasing number of working-age taxpayers to contribute to funding the health, social care and state pensions of those who are retired. If we want to maintain existing levels of provision, the only way of doing so is either increasing tax rates on today’s generation of young people – yet another burden for them on top of ludicrously high house prices and the student debt many will spend their working lives paying back – or increasing the number of taxpayers through immigration.
Last year more than half of visas went to people working in the NHS and social care
Public attitudes on immigration have also shifted significantly since Brexit: at the end of 2022, just one in ten voters said immigration was a top concern for them, compared to half of voters in 2016. Comparative polling shows that people in the UK have the most positive attitudes to immigration from across seventeen countries sampled, with just nine per cent thinking immigration has a bad impact on the country.
So where is the pressure to reduce net immigration coming from, if not substantive grounds, or from the public? The answer is, of course, from within the Conservative party, which remains riven after the political turmoil of the last three years. The right flank of Sunak’s party is willing to hold him hostage on immigration, on ideological grounds. The same group that pushed for the hardest of Brexits will do yet more economic damage to the country if they get their way on this too.
Twitter tweeter teeter
The chaos that has beset Twitter since it was bought by Elon Musk last October for $44bn continues. Musk is a self-styled “free speech” advocate but the changes he made to Twitter’s moderation policies caused many of its advertisers to pull their revenue from the app. Add in the debt Musk loaded on in order to finance his purchase, and he ended up making dramatic cutbacks that involved firing 80 per cent of Twitter staff. He also tried to replace lost ad revenue by getting more people to pay to use Twitter, making verification a subscription-only service.
This has – unsurprisingly – impacted heavily on the Twitter experience, with users complaining their timelines are filled with poor-quality content and badly-targeted advertising. The latest development was Twitter temporarily limiting the number of posts non-paid subscribers could view to just 600 per day, with heavy users quickly hitting the limit.
Why should we care? Like it or not, social media platforms from Twitter to TikTok exert huge power over our lives, including the way we consume news and advertising. They are natural monopolies as a function of the fact that they’re only as good as the number of people who are active on them – and that goes not just for advertisers but also for users. Yet unlike the physical natural monopolies of the twenty-first century, like the railways and the energy grid, they are barely regulated. It’s not just Musk who will suffer if Twitter continues to crumble.
Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist