Huge questions hang over what Britain’s exit from the European Union will mean for the country’s immigration policy. Free movement of citizens between the UK and EU countries is coming to an end but there is still little detail about what planned immigration controls will entail. The future immigration system – which the UK government has said will be finalised in a bill before parliament – will depend on the types of trade deals Britain negotiates with the EU, and the rest of the world.
Even before negotiations begin, the government faces a number of imperatives and some conflicting objectives on EU immigration.
Any reforms will need to be practically enforceable. This raises questions as to whether the Home Office has the resources, systems and manpower to implement proposals – despite a history of mismanagement and the complexity of regulating migration. Reforms will also need to meet labour market demands in low and mid-skilled sectors that have long relied on EU labour. These include retail and hospitality, the NHS and social care, construction, agriculture and horticulture, among others. Unless there is an improvement in pay and work conditions it is hard to see how or why British workers will fill these shortages.
Likewise, if it is to continue with its rhetoric of wanting to “attract the brightest and best” to the UK, the government needs to continue to pull in highly skilled EU migrants – and make sure those already in the country stay. With the current political climate and uncertainty already driving some EU nationals to leave, the government will have to work hard to continue to make the UK an attractive destination.
The net migration conundrum
At the same time, the government is determined to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Yet any trade deal with a country outside the EU, such as Australia, will come with demands to liberalise the visa regimes for citizens of that country – which could push up net migration. And given the complexities facing British citizens now living in the EU, some may return to the UK after Brexit – also driving up net migration.
It’s also likely that the end of free movement could see EU citizens in the UK shifting to other channels such as student or family visas, and spark a surge in irregular migration. All this is unlikely to help achieve any significant reduction in net migration.
Speaking on the BBC’s Question Time in late March, the Brexit secretary David Davis confirmed it was unlikely Britain would seek to cap the number of EU migrants coming to Britain after Brexit.
So how does the government plan to square these circles, and how desirable and achievable are they? There are four principle ways the government could go about it.
EU preferential system
The key question is whether the government will establish an entirely new system for EU nationals that gives them preferential access to the labour market, or whether they will simply be subject to the controls that all other non-EU citizens currently face. A preferential system would be a constructive offer to make to other EU countries as the government seeks to negotiate a positive partnership with the EU after Brexit.
But there is a trade off here between a system tailored to meet labour force demands and a simpler model that applies uniform rules. A tailored approach would allow the government to identify jobs shortages and tie its immigration policy into wider policy objectives. But it would introduce extra complexity into the system, making it harder for employers and employees to navigate and for the government to manage. The current system was introduced under Labour in 2008 precisely to simplify a system that had 80-or-so different legal channels.
If the government doesn’t give preferential access to EU nationals, one possibility could be to finally allow low-skilled workers from around the world to apply for a visa to Britain. The government has never thought it necessary to open up what’s called the Tier 3 visa within Britain’s current point-based immigration system, because EU nationals would fill up these lower-skilled jobs. If the government decides to treat EU nationals the same as all other nationals, this policy could change.
Five-year working visa
One possibility touted in a report in The Sunday Times in late February is the introduction of five-year working visas for EU nationals that would remove their entitlement to benefits, such as child benefit. Under this system, applications for a five-year visa would be granted on condition of a job in a key occupations in key sector. Speculatively, it seems this would be on a quota basis, all of which would be recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee.
This proposal is thin on detail. Job offers are rarely – if ever – given on a five-year basis, raising questions on how this kind of visa could work in practice or how the government can forecast shortages in five years’ time. It’s unclear whether there would be a requirement for salaries to be above or below a certain threshold – which could also complicate matters.
Benefits tourism is widely derided as being an overstated problem, with EU nationals making up only 2.2% of total claimants in the UK in 2015. Stripping benefit entitlements is a familiar political sop, and the government knows it would do little to nothing to reduce net migration.
A further option circulating in policy circles is the possibility of introducing sector specific immigration schemes. The UK used to have schemes for different sectors, most notably the seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS), which terminated in December 2013. Long before Brexit was on the cards, representatives from agriculture industries had reported labour shortages because of its closure. Brexit has made this a pressing concern.
On the whole, SAWS was on a well-managed scheme. Workers came for less than a year and so did not technically count in the net migration figures. So the government has little to lose by re-establishing a SAWS scheme, and the insinuation is that the government will do so. But agriculture – a sector with a 50-year history of regulating foreign labour – may be the exception. Other sectors may struggle to manage such schemes.
Regional migration policy
Another suggestion – although it seems to have been rejected by the government – would be for the UK to implement a regional immigration policy. The advantage of this would be to recognise regional differences and possibly alleviate any disproportionate impacts of immigration on public services and housing in highly populated areas, in theory dampening public concerns over immigration.
While federal states such as Canada can effectively operate a regional immigration policy, how this would work in the UK remains ambiguous. Migrant workers are often pulled to the UK by the dazzle of London and other metropolitan areas. It would be naïve to assume that migrant workers will be just as willing to take a job in less desirable areas.
Such a proposal would also mean the government will need to reliably measure shortages by region, set appropriate quotas and monitor when these quotas are met – all which will take a lot of resources in an already stretched civil service.
This isn’t to say a regional policy is impossible. London and the devolved states in theory have the democratic structures in place to police it, and Scotland already has a different list of shortage occupations. But if such a dramatic overhaul were to be functional, it really requires a much wider devolution of education and skills systems.
Ultimately, as with all Brexit policy matters, the outcome will depend on whether the government considers the economic damage of immigration reform as incidental to what parliamentarians clearly assume is a democratic demand to bring immigration down. If May’s current plans are anything to go by, it seems the economic implications will be secondary.