Skilled migration outside London is dominated by the health sector, according to figures that suggest only the capital is likely to reap the full economic benefits of the post-Brexit visa system.
London’s employers have long been more reliant on migrant labour than those elsewhere in the UK. Some 45 per cent of the capital’s workforce is foreign born, compared with 18 per cent in the country as a whole.
A report by Oxford university’s Migration Observatory on Tuesday showed that incoming migration via the skilled work visa route has been concentrated in the capital in recent years.
Between 2016 and 2020, London was the destination for 44 per cent of skilled work visa holders, although it had only 14 per cent of the UK’s population, according to figures the Observatory obtained from the Home Office on certificates of sponsorship — which are assigned to migrants ahead of a visa application or an application to extend an existing one.
London employers were using skilled work visas across a wide range of industries, especially finance, professional and scientific activities and IT, the Observatory said.
But since 2015, demand for skilled workers in these areas has levelled off, while demand for healthcare workers has grown rapidly, due to a relaxation of migration rules for the sector, and an explicit NHS strategy to recruit overseas.
This means the regional pattern of migration is changing, because the health sector, although accounting for only a small share of skilled migrants to the capital, has driven demand outside London — making up 60 per cent of certificates of sponsorship in other regions by 2020.
“London is using these visas in a very different way to the rest of the country . . . Outside London, it’s a healthcare visa,” said Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory.
She said the capital’s continued dominance of skilled migration in sectors other than health could reflect regional employers’ lack of familiarity with the sponsorship system, but also migrants’ own preferences.
This would have implications for the government’s levelling up agenda, she added, because it suggested most regions were not benefiting fully from the type of high-skilled migration most likely to boost local economies.
London has been most affected by the drop in migration caused by the Covid pandemic. The number of skilled work visas granted peaked at 37,000 in 2019 and fell by 8,000, or 22 per cent, the following year. Three quarters of this decline took place in the capital, as cross-border hiring stalled in the City, but continued at pace in the health sector.
But Sumption said the apparent decline in London’s “attractiveness” was “probably more of a blip than a long-term trend” — despite the double hit from post-Brexit policy and the pandemic.
Since the start of 2021, employers have had to use the Skilled Worker route if they want to hire from the EU, under the post-Brexit immigration system.
London drew the biggest share of EU citizens entering through this route in the first half of 2021 compared with other parts of the country, the Observatory said. But, it added, the numbers were too small to affect the overall balance of migration between the capital and the regions.
With cross-border recruitment still driven by the health sector, it remained to be seen “how quickly the capital will bounce back”.
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