November 2023 saw the appointment of former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly as Home Secretary following the tumultuous tenure and departure of Suella Braverman. Ms Braverman was removed from her position following a series of incendiary comments regarding asylum seekers, immigrants and homeless people. Her removal also came just days before the highly anticipated decision by the Supreme Court on the Rwanda policy. In the end, the Supreme Court, the highest court in the UK, ruled that Rwanda is not a safe third country for asylum seekers to be sent and processed. So what does 2024 hold for immigration policy in the hands of Mr Cleverly? Will it be more of the same, a radical shift in approach, or something in between?
One clue as to Mr Cleverly’s intentions for immigration in the UK can be seen in his views on the Rwanda policy. In a news article in the Times, he told the newspaper that he was “frustrated” with the focus on Rwanda and it is not the “be-all and end-all”. Nevertheless, he reiterated Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s view that reducing the number of “small boats” coming to the UK should remain a key focus and that the Rwanda policy was an “important” part of achieving this aim. To this end, he is still considering how to use emergency legislation to force through the scheme. Confirming his initial priorities, he stated:
“As the home secretary, I am absolutely committed to stopping the boats as we promised, but also making sure that everybody in the UK feels safe and secure going about their daily business knowing that the government is here to protect them”.
Mr Cleverly has also refused to rule out leaving the ECHR, but he also said that leaving it would risk harming “key cooperation” with France, Albania, Bulgaria and other international partners. He sees this international cooperation as key to driving down illegal migration to the UK.
It is well known that the new Home Secretary campaigned and voted for Brexit in 2016. In November 2022, he told the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee:
“The Prime Minister campaigned for Brexit. He voted for Brexit. He is on record as doing that, as did I. The commitment that we made to the British people in the 2019 general election was to get Brexit done, which means leaving the European Union and redefining our relationship with the European Union as an institution and as its member states, as a friend, as a trading partner and as a geographical near neighbour, but not as a member”.
In addition to his focus on illegal migration to the UK, James Cleverly has also announced his intention to reduce legal migration. In the past couple of weeks, the news that a “record-breaking” 745,000 migrants came to the UK in 2022, partially due to the ending of free movement, drew considerable anger within the Conservative party, with many demanding urgent action. As a result, it is expected that Mr Cleverly will be putting his efforts into bringing down net migration in 2024.
The Home Office may seek to reduce net migration in a number of ways, including reducing the number of dependent family members who become visa holders in the UK. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has described this intention as “the single toughest measure that anyone has taken to bring down the levels of legal migration in a very long time”. The problem with this measure is that it may act as a disincentive for those with skills to come to the UK. Indeed, experts have already warned that this approach could impair the government’s ability to attract skilled workers, including those in the health and care sector. According to Professor Brian Bell, who chairs the Migration Advisory Committee:
“You can’t encourage enough British people to do the work in social care because it’s so badly paid. If you make it harder for migrants to come in on the route … that might begin to reduce the number who are coming in. That will reduce net migration, and so the government might be happy with that.”
Another possibility is removing the Shortage Occupation List (SOL). The SOL is published and updated by the Home Office and contains a large number of jobs across several industry sectors for which there is a lack of supply of candidates in the UK. Work visa applicants with a job offer on the SOL have a lower minimum annual income requirement. The criticism of the SOL is that it is frequently used by companies paying lower wages, allowing them to hire “cheap foreign labour”. On the other hand, the SOL is seen as an essential way of ensuring the supply of much-needed skills in the UK, especially for the NHS, which is struggling with unprecedented labour shortages and soaring waiting lists.
There is also a suggestion that the Home Office may implement a cap on UK work visas, however, experts have already made it clear that doing so may hinder economic growth. Other ideas include increasing the minimum income requirement, potentially to £35,000 or thereabouts. The Home Office has already hiked the healthcare immigration surcharge from £624 per year to £1,035 per year, an increase of 66%.
It is clear that the government is not backing down on its approach of making immigration a key election-winning issue. The recent announcement that the Home Office is paying another £15m to the Rwandan government to seal the asylum deal is a clear signal that the Rwanda policy is not dead. The reality is that this policy, along with a series of other disincentivising measures, may make some immigrants think twice before applying for a UK visa.
Many may ask what happened to the idea of encouraging skilled migrants to the UK.
The problem for the government is that by curbing immigration, the economy will likely be further stifled. It may be that any policies it attempts to get through parliament prove so unpopular and unwise that the House of Lords refuses to back them. With a strong election challenge from Labour looming, it is reasonable to surmise that any last-minute efforts to force through immigration-lowering changes may have a limited effect when looking at the bigger picture.