Few people would doubt that worries about immigration were central to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. The winning slogan ‘Take Back Control’ probably applied more to the number of people coming to live here than to any other. The free movement of labour is, of course, an essential feature of the single market and that’s precisely why so many Brexiteers wanted no part of it. But as yet the government has been coy about what British immigration policy after Brexit should look like. Now an independent advisory body has sketched an outline. So what should Britain’s new, sovereign immigration policy be?
Immigration has long been a deeply controversial issue in Britain as it is in most other countries. The number of EU immigrants to Britain soared after 2004 when the Labour government waived its right to restrict entry to immigrants from eastern European countries such as Poland, which had newly joined the EU. Back in 2004 there were around only half a million EU citizens born outside the UK (and Ireland) working in Britain; today it is more than two million. Net migration (the excess of those coming to live in Britain over those emigrating) soared to 300,000 a year and has stuck thereabouts ever since.
Many people said such numbers were unsustainable because they placed more of a burden on the country than they brought benefits. Before coming to power the then Tory leader, David Cameron, promised to reduce the figure to ‘the tens of thousands’ and that is what he and his home secretary for six years, Theresa May, set out to achieve.
But it was always going to be an almost impossible task. For a start, one figure in the equation – the numbers emigrating – was beyond their control. But so was another: the numbers of people coming to Britain from the EU. That’s because Britain, as a member of the EU’s single market, was obliged to accept as many EU citizens as wished to come to live here.
That left the government needing to be unusually harsh on the remaining potential immigrants over whom it did have some control, namely from elsewhere in the world, including Commonwealth countries. Quotas were imposed on the number of high-skilled workers wanting to come here from such countries, a policy attacked as unnecessarily restricting invaluable labour to Britain. It also led Mrs May to introduce restrictions on the number of foreign students coming to Britain, a policy many also thought amounted to cutting off your nose to spite your face, since foreign students are money-earners for Britain. But she was determined to follow her brief and get the numbers down.
But none of this worked in reducing net migration to the tens of thousands. In the year up to March 2018 it was still running at 270,000. To many the solution was obvious. Only by leaving the EU and the single market could a British government gain enough control over immigration to have any chance of reaching the target.
Now Britain is due to leave the EU. But the question remains open as to what an independent British immigration policy should look like. And not everybody thinks it should be tailored to achieve the net migration target. That’s because many think that large-scale immigration has been good for Britain and would continue to be so if we let it persist.
In order to guide it towards the most advantageous policy, the government set up the Migration Advisory Committee to make recommendations and it has reported this week.
The first thing it says is that the existing policy of free movement of labour within the single market has had, for Britain, ‘neither the large negative effects claimed by some nor the clear benefits claimed by others’. It concludes, for example, that the availability of so many EU migrants has had little or no impact on the overall employment of British-born workers.
It adds that far from being a drain on taxpayers’ money, such immigrants have been substantial net contributors to the exchequer, to the tune of £4.7bn in the 2016/17 tax year, with the net contribution of each immigrant being on average £2,380 more than that of a native Briton, and even generally lower-skilled workers from eastern Europe contributing £1,110 more each year per head than the average British worker. But it acknowledges that the presence of such large numbers of immigrants has in places put undue strains on the provision of public services, such as health and education.
As for the future, its main recommendation is that the preferential treatment currently afforded to EU migrants over those from the rest of the world should end and everyone should be treated exactly the same, unless the government chooses during the Brexit negotiations to offer some forms of preferential treatment to EU citizens in return, say, for increased market access for British goods or services within the EU.
The other main thrust of its recommendations is that Britain should prioritise attracting high-skilled immigrants (from anywhere in the world) over low-skilled immigrants. At the moment high-skilled workers from within the EU can come to work in Britain in unlimited numbers (because of single market rules), but those from elsewhere are subject to a minimum salary threshold of £30,000 per annum and there is a cap of 20,370 on the number of such workers being admitted each year. The committee advocates keeping the salary threshold but abolishing the cap entirely, allowing as many high-skilled workers from anywhere in the world to come here as want to and as are offered jobs.
The corollary of this is that the committee wants to see a considerable reduction in the number of low-skilled workers coming to Britain, meaning that all such workers (including, for the first time, those who are EU citizens) would have to apply for a visa if they wanted to remain for more than six months. The only exception it countenances would be for seasonal foreign workers to be allowed in to work in agriculture.
But this proposal has been attacked by those industries which have depended on low-skilled foreign (especially EU) workers to keep going. These include the hospitality industry, food manufacture, construction, cleaning and the social care sector. Leaders in these businesses have warned of ‘significant challenges’ in recruiting the staff needed if the supply of low-skilled EU migrants were to dry up.
Professor Alan Manning, the chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee, seems unmoved by these pleas. He suggests that a sector facing labour shortages as a result of the policy he proposes should find ‘new ways’ of addressing the problem. ‘It could think about using its existing workers more productively. It could think about raising the wages, improving the terms and conditions so that it becomes more attractive.’ In other words, make it more attractive for British-born workers to do these jobs.
Part of the reasoning behind this thinking is that Britain’s poor productivity record over the last ten years or so may have been due to industry’s lazy reliance on cheap labour at the expense of productivity-raising investment. But many at the front line will argue that putting up wages and increasing productivity are things more easily said than done. In the social care sector, for example, the chief constraint on raising wages is the failure of government to fund social care properly. The sudden drying up of eastern European labour could cause havoc within social care, they fear.
It’s now up to the government to decide whether to accept the committee’s recommendations or not. Its first decision will be whether to offer some form of continuing privileged access to EU workers (short of retaining complete freedom of movement of labour) in return for trade concessions from the EU. It also has to consider the possibility that the EU would impose its own new restrictions on British workers wanting to work in EU countries should Britain end preferential treatment for EU citizens entirely.
And it will have to decide whether it wants to prioritise high-skilled immigration over low-skilled, with possibly big adverse effects on sectors such as hospitality, construction and social care.
Most of all, it will have to decide how important it is to stick with its long-term aim of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands. Is it still desirable, or would it do more harm than good?
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