For years, young Australians have dreamed of spending time in London on a working holiday visa.
Now the spectre of tighter immigration and visa laws threatens to turn dreams of a spell in London into a mere illusion.
Annabelle Ross-Edwards, a former Sydneysider now living in London, moved from Sydney’s Paddington in 2012 with her partner and scored a job with a start-up. But it wasn’t just the job that lured her to London. “The idea of full-time work [is] inviting, but to have the accessibility to travel Europe and other parts of the northern hemisphere so easily, [that’s] so attractive to Australians,” she told The Newsroom.
“For me, London has an exciting familiarity to it and that’s what made me want to move, more than anything – knowing I could feel at home, being so far away.”
Ms Ross-Edwards was recently spurred to vote in the UK general election (permitted by UK law as she is a Commonwealth citizen) by the growing threat of legislative change that might limit young Australians’ ability to stay in her new favourite city.
It’s not surprising she’s worried about new moves to “keep numbers down”. There is a very real problem for Australians: though the government is determined to reduce immigration, European Union rules of freedom of movement limit Whitehall’s ability to restrict migration from the EU, whereas there is no such problem when it comes to limiting the number of Australians and New Zealanders entering the UK.
In recent years, and especially now, political parties have become concerned about the rising population of London, and of European Union migrants in particular, as it glides towards nine million people. With the population at 8.615 million people at the time of writing, the constant flow of immigrants places a massive burden on crowded infrastructure, housing and employment prospects.
On June 10, British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament the Immigration Advisory Committee had been asked to recommend ways to reduce work-related migration from outside Europe. Proposals might include restricting work visas to only highly specialist workers and areas with a genuine skill shortage and limiting the length of time a sector can claim to have a skills shortage, he said.
Mr Cameron has pledged to tighten immigration because “If you have uncontrolled immigration, you have uncontrolled pressure on public services.”
Case in point? Public transport, specifically, the Tube. London’s Underground is the world’s first railway system, opening in 1863. Today, it is still one of the best in the world, with trains on major lines averaging one every two to five minutes, yet trains are still sardine-packed and steadily getting worse. A 2008 report to the London Assembly Transport Committee Overcrowding on Overground Rail Routes noted: “Over the last year, journeys to, from or within London have increased by 27.5 per cent.”
A report by Tim Hewish, co-founder of the Commonwealth Exchange think tank, released last November was aptly named How to Solve a Problem Like a Visa. The report explains the reasons for the Conservative Party’s immigration and labour market reform, and outlines the current immigration environment and potential future alterations to the immigration laws. According to the report, over the past decade, migration to the UK from Commonwealth countries has declined, while immigration of EU citizens has more than doubled.
The 2011 UK census shows Commonwealth-born migrants from India now living in the UK stands at 729,000 people, but the number of Australians (ranked ninth on the list) was just 110,000. Migration from the European Union has risen inexorably, including 643,000 Polish, 297,000 Germans and 137,000 French resident in the UK. Although the government is focused on reducing non-EU migration, it is EU migrants who put most stress on infrastructure and jobs.
A report by Cambridge economics expert Robert Rowthorn for Civitas has warned “if future immigrants fail to find work in a competitive jobs market, or take low-skilled jobs from British workers, the tide could turn”.
Mr Rowthorn spelled out the issues that come with a larger population: “The current financial benefits of migration, including GDP growth and higher wages, will be outweighed by the pressures of a larger population.”
Official figures from the 2011 census showed that 370,000 EU migrants who went to Britain to work, study or holiday now claim the dole. Previous influxes of EU nationalities and their subsequent “bludging” off the dole has swung public opinion in favour of Australians with skills and a good work ethic. Some MPs have urged the government to introduce easier immigration rules for people offering those attributes. As Boris Johnson, Lord Mayor of London, now an MP, said in 2014: “I’m pro people being able to come and make their lives in London if they’ve got talent and if they’ve got energy.”
The fact remains though – the government is looking at clamping down on Australian migrants because that’s what is possible.
Ralph Buckle, the other co-founder of the think-tank behind How to Solve a Problem Like a Visa, has proposed a “bilateral mobility” zone making it easier for Australian and New Zealand citizens to live and work in the UK.
There’s some encouragement for Australians from the Commonwealth Exchange report, including this: “It would be shameful and a deep error to ignore the shared language, legal system, and customs that the Commonwealth family provides. UK soft power depends on it.”
The question now is whether the Government of the day will agree and honour that tradition once the advisory committee files its report. —Bonnie Baker
Top photo from fotofan1’s Pixabay account.