TJ Coles unpicks how Brexiters have approached immigration in office, after using it as a scare campaign for so many years

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Over the last couple of years, the Conservative Government has signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with several countries to seemingly fill gaps in the post-Brexit jobs market. 

Anti-immigration sentiment was a core element of the Brexit vote, and 200,000 EU citizens left the UK because of our departure from the EU and the pandemic.

90% percent of Leave voters held the opinion that immigration is overall bad for Britain, compared to just 10% of Remainers.

Many Brexit voters cast their ballots for the Conservatives in 2019, hoping to “get Brexit done” – voting for a project that promised to ensure that domestic workers would be equipped to better compete in the labour market, benefitting from higher wages as the supply of workers was reduced. However, this philosophy has been widely criticised by economists, and the Government appears to have adopted a different path.

Net migration of EU citizens peaked at above 200,000 a year just before the EU Referendum but fell to about 50,000 a year just before the pandemic – falling to close to close to zero for the years ending June 2020 and June 2021, as noted by the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank.

However, “by contrast, non-EU net migration remained high, even during the period most affected, and was back to about 250,000 in the year ending June 2021”.

Graph: Migration Observatory

Moreover, the Conservatives have signed a number of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with middle-income countries to fill skills and labour shortages.

Signed in May last year, the Memorandum of Understanding with India concentrates on IT and other tech workers. It “wishes to expand economic cooperation in the field of labour and employment” and also emphasises “co-operation in the field of mobility and migration” for skilled professionals and students. The MoU states that: “human exchanges and migratory movements help to bring people together and are a factor of economic, social and cultural development.”

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The MoU with the Philippines, signed in November 2021, seeks to recruit Filipino healthcare workers, including biomedical specialists and occupational therapists. It is light on the rights of Filipino workers but emphasises shared training initiatives.

The MoU with Malaysia, also signed in November last year, seeks to recruit “doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals”. Also light on workers’ rights, the MoU emphasises secrecy: “Each participant shall undertake to observe the confidentiality and secrecy of documents, information and any other data received from or supplied by to the other participant”. In effect, human rights groups will not be able to scrutinise employer contracts.

The MoU with Sri Lanka, signed earlier this year, also focuses on healthcare recruitment. It expounds the shared “desire to ensure commitment to training and development of healthcare professionals recruited from Sri Lanka to the UK”. This will include the employment of “physiotherapists, radiographers, and midwives”.

The Brexit Mythology

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. When it comes to the number of STEM tertiary graduates, Britain is behind the OECD average, lagging behind Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, and Lithuania.

By last year, seven-in-10 STEM employers were complaining that they had to raise salaries to attract employees while spending a combined £1.5 billion to complete STEM training, recruitment, and temporary staffing. In 2020, the Government pledged a mere £179 million in additional funding to “support the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and engineers from all backgrounds”.

Similar problems occur in healthcare. The Royal College of Nursing reports that, in 2015, the Health Education England budget for nurses was £205 million. By 2019, that had been reduced to little over £83 million.

Not counting social care, the NHS employs 1.4 million people: the overwhelming majority of whom (1.1 million) are British. To date, more than 25,000 are Filipino and 2,500 Malaysian. Yet, by March this year, one-in-10 nursing jobs and one-in-17 GP posts were empty, while professional journals say that the Government’s plan to recruit 50,000 nurses by 2024 is having “no impact”.

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Some 40% of NHS doctors are non-white, while polling data suggest that post-Brexit racism has increased markedly. In the NHS, 90% of black and Asian professionals, 73% of mixed-ethnicity, and 64% of white staff say that racism is a major issue in the NHS. Seven-in-10 who witnessed or experienced racism did not report the issue, fearing that it would reflect badly on them or that the issue would not be taken seriously.

The Vote Leave project has adopted anti-immigration rhetoric, despite seemingly still recognising the essential function of immigrants to our economy – all while failing to invest in the up-skilling of domestic workers.

There is also some evidence that the Government is not acting aggressively enough to prevent domestic visa schemes from exploiting migrant workers. One nurse, Mictin from India, explained how visa costs for his family will amount to £10,000. Mictin took action to raise awareness, telling local media earlier this year: “I started the petition to give awareness to the public about the exploitation we, as overseas nurses who work in this country, undergo during this pandemic and over the years.”

Mictin’s case is not anecdotal. In addition to migrant NHS staff, Indian, Filipino, and other social healthcare workers face rip-off “recruitment” fees ranging from £3,000 to £18,000. Recruitment agencies have even been documented withholding passports until debts are repaid. Despite former Home Secretary and Prime Minister Theresa May’s anti-slavery legacy, campaigners cite England’s care home sector abuses as examples of modern slavery.

It is right to celebrate the vast contribution of immigrants to Britain – but the fact is that, for the last decade, successive right-wing political campaigns have demonised people seeking to live and work in the UK, promising a false reality that they never could have delivered.

This article was amended on 21 July to add additional references to overall changes in post-Brexit migration, and to remove the claim that all MoUs are designed to “fast track” visas


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