The claim

“We are taking action to tackle immigration, and it is our aim to reduce the level of net migration to sustainable levels down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands within the lifetime of this parliament.”

Conservative Party Policy

The background

Stemming the flood of migration with the UK’s first “immigration cap” was a central pledge in the Conservative Party’s manifesto.

The Tories have retained the pledge, despite being forced into something of a climbdown in 2010 by then-Business Secretary Vince Cable. Pressure from Mr Cable led to the government dropping the cap for “intra-company transfers” – allowing thousands of foreign workers to transfer to the UK within their companies.

Mr Cameron brushed off the U-turn, claiming at the time that not capping these workers wouldn’t hurt the target, adding that they “shouldn’t be included in what we are looking at”.

Was he right? FactCheck looks at the evidence.

The analysis

The government put a temporary cap on the number of visas granted to skilled “Tier 2” workers from outside the European Economic Area in July 2010 and replaced it with a permanent limit of 20,700 in April last year (plus 1,000 highly skilled workers).

But it decided not to cap the number of Tier 2 visas handed out to intra-company transfers (ICTs) – which make up 80 per cent of the category. Of these, since April 2011 60 per cent were short-term visas and the rest long-term.

Visas granted to skilled “Tier 2” workers between 2009-2011

General (capped)                     Intra-company transfers (not capped)
2009 22,029                                              14,490
2010 9,915                                                29,176
2011 7,761                                                29,677

Source: Home Office

As you can see from the figures above, the number of general visas issued last year fell well short of the 20,700 cap put in place by the government.

In its first year the take-up of capped visas was less than half and since then it has dropped further – by more than 2,000. However, the government puts this down to the weak economic climate.

While the government has made it slightly harder to get ICT visas – by introducing a minimum salary for example – it’s worth nothing that the numbers of these visas – which aren’t subject to a cap – has continued to climb.

Despite the bleak job market, companies are bringing more non-EU workers into the UK on ICTs – and they can get them in for less than a year as long as they earn more than £24,000.

Are these workers usurping jobs for British workers? A report out today from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said some of these foreign workers are vital – such as Japanese auto engineers from Honda, Nissan and Toyota training British workers.

But the majority of ICT visas are not handed out to engineers, they are handed out to IT workers from India. And here, the MAC confirmed: “Indeed, some UK workers in information technology occupations will inevitably lose out from the practice, either through labour market displacement or wage suppression”.

Software professionals topped the list -with almost 6,000 visas issued in 7 months alone last year. And over the full year almost 20,000 visas were granted to workers from India in 2011 – 66 per cent of all ICT visas.

Outside the IT sector, the impact on other jobs in other sectors is however “weak”.

In the UK, we already have the highest proportion of ICTs in the world. Figures show that in 2009 there were 500 ICT visas issued to foreigners for every million UK workers. Behind us is Canada and Australia, where there are fewer than 300 per every million. Meanwhile, in the US less than 200 ICT visas are issued for every 1m American workers.

Earlier this year the MAC estimated that overall between 1995 and 2010 the number of jobs held by migrants was one in every 13.

The verdict

With no visa cap in place for the group of foreign workers that made up 80 per cent of all skilled “Tier 2” workers last year, the numbers continue to climb.

Though only up by 502 last year,  during the same torrid economic period the number of capped visas dropped by more than 2,000 to 7,761. The latter now account for less than a third of the amount of skilled immigrants working in the UK.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) estimates that if the flow of workers on both capped and uncapped (ICT) visas continues to enter the UK at a similar pace, the number of skilled migrant workers will climb to 39,400. This doesn’t include their spouses and dependents, who accounted for almost 30,000 people last year.

The forecast has prompted MAC to warn the government it could not be “fully confident” that it would be able to bring down net immigration from 250,000 to the “tens of thousands” over the lifetime of this parliament.

The government has three options, MAC said: raise the skill level requirement, raise the salary threshold or put limits on the sponsorships.

Immigration Minister Damian Green said: “We welcome the report and we are considering the recommendations. The government will announce its decisions in the near future”.

Given the Tories pledged to cut immigration to tens of thousands by the next parliament – and immigration is expected to pick up as the economy recovers – he’s got no time to lose.

By Emma Thelwell

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