The UK Government should test out a visa to encourage migrants to live and work in rural areas, according to advisers.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which briefs ministers on immigration policy, said migrants continue to be drawn to London over other regions of the UK and recommended a pilot of a “rural visa” to see if this would help “counteract depopulation” in countryside areas.
No specific regions have been suggested but the body’s chairman Professor Brian Bell told reporters many of the areas could be in Scotland and Wales.
Stressing that a pilot was important first to see if the idea works, he said the number of areas in question should be “limited” and suggested the plan could involve creating immigration rules allowing lower skilled migrant workers to be employed in rural communities.
This could potentially help fill vacancies in agriculture, possible attracting more seasonal farm workers, as well as in fishing and hospitality – particularly cleaners, bar and waiting staff.
“International evidence” suggests the policy could have some effect, he said as the MAC’s report published on Tuesday highlighted examples of “regional dimensions” in Australia, Canada and New Zealand’s immigration systems.
The findings added: “Evidence for the efficacy of rural visas in countries of the UK’s geographic scale is limited …
“We do not currently have sufficient evidence on migrant retention in rural areas and a fully evaluated pilot would help to build this evidence base.
“Such an approach would be in keeping with the Government’s levelling up agenda, utilising the immigration system to address some of the negative impacts of rural depopulation, including the inability to sustain local public services and key industries that play important regional and national roles in our economy.”
Deciding how many visas to offer would be a key question in developing the policy and census data that could give indications on where the pilot might work, Prof Bell said.
He added: “You don’t want it to be too big that it becomes a massive part of the immigration system and then you get lots of concerns. But you want it to be big enough that you can actually begin to see the effect and actually see whether it works as intended.”
But he also warned there could be “a higher risk of exploitation” in offering such a visa as workers are tied to a particular area which may have “quite a thin labour market” because there are not many employers competing for workers.
There would need to be “good enforcement of labour market standards and protection of migrant workers” as a result, Prof Bell added.