Rishi Sunak has been warned by a key immigration body to avoid focusing on reducing the numbers of people coming into the UK amid a national staffing shortage in key industries.
The independent migration advisory committee has urged the prime minister, who wants an overall cut in net migration, to instead cooperate with the private sector on how to manage and address shortages in the labour market.
In its annual report, the committee has called for the piloting of a rural visa scheme to help send workers to depopulated parts of the countryside.
But it has also cautioned against reopening many visa routes into the UK, saying that would lessen the incentives on employers to adjust pay and working conditions to attract workers.
The report has been released on Tuesday as Sunak is expected to announce new measures to curb the number of people making claims to stay in the UK after arriving via small boats.
Under immense pressure from Tory backbenchers to come up with moves to cut blockages in the immigration system, he is expected to announce ways of reducing the number of people waiting to have their asylum claims processed.
It is understood that the prime minister will say that measures will be introduced to help reduce the number of people arriving from Albania.
Net migration in the 12 months to June 2022 reached 504,000, an increase of 331,000 compared with the previous year, government figures show. A significant part of the rise was due to recently introduced visa routes such as those for Ukraine and Hong Kong citizens, as well as a rise in the numbers of overseas students.
In October, Sunak’s official spokesperson said he would seek to revive targets to reduce overall migration. “Meeting our manifesto commitments remains important. The prime minister has been very clear on that. And that relates to net migration as well,” the spokesperson said.
Tuesday’s report said: “We would caution the government in becoming too focused on particular net migration numbers, and any change in objective would need to be consistent with the fiscal rules that the government have in place.”
The committee noted that rural depopulation had created problems “when local areas no longer have a sufficient population to sustain private and public sector amenities, such as schools or shops”.
The knock-on effect can also damage national food supply chains and accelerate the decline of industries that have sustained rural economies, such as fishing, agriculture, and hospitality.
The committee recommended a piloted scheme to offer rural visas to people who have entered the UK so that the government can see whether the new arrivals are willing to remain in the countryside.
“If a pilot evaluation found that migrants moved elsewhere after the residency conditions of their visa lapsed, this would suggest that migration was, at best, a short-term solution to rural depopulation,” the report said.
Other recommendations in the report include an improved minimum rate of pay for care workers, which is higher than the “national living wage” of £10.42 an hour from April, and more joined-up thinking across government and the private sector to address shortages in the labour market.
Prof Brian Bell, chair of the MAC, said: “The UK finds itself facing a recession. Yet with rising rates of economic inactivity and a large number of job vacancies, it would be all too tempting to imagine that a quick fix can be achieved simply by easing some of the restrictions on the immigration work routes.
“But such changes are rarely temporary and would lessen the incentives on employers to adjust pay and working conditions to attract workers out of unemployment and inactivity.
“At the same time, the government needs to proactively manage and address shortages through the implementation of an effective strategy and joined-up thinking across government and the private sector.
“There has long been talk of a high-wage, high-skill economy but at present we see little indication of this being put into effect through existing government policy.”