LONDON — Lost among all the talk of a hard Irish border, customs partnerships, and the “Norway model,” is one of the most challenging Brexit tests facing Theresa May’s government. How should the UK handle immigration after it leaves the European Union?
The government knows it’s a big issue. The Home Office originally planned to publish its plans for post-Brexit immigration in a white paper last year. But its publication was pushed back repeatedly, and the date is now set for this autumn, although a recent Politico report suggested that date could be shifted back again to July.
Officially, the government says it’s awaiting evidence from the Migration Advisory Committee — an independent advisory body — before it publishes its proposals.
Unofficially, key decisions are being delayed because the Cabinet cannot agree among itself about how to manage the conflicting demands of Brexit-supporting voters and the many businesses who depend on immigration.
Prime Minister May raised the issue in Cabinet earlier this year and had a “massive row” with several senior colleagues, as Business Insider reported.
“The reason the government hasn’t said much about post-Brexit immigration policy is that, like pretty much everything else, the government doesn’t agree with itself. There is no policy,” said Jonathan Portes, economics professor at King’s College London and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.
Decisions on immigration policy will define the kind of country Britain becomes when free movement from Europe ends. A restrictive immigration policy would engender the support of many Leave voters but place an even bigger strain on key sectors, including the NHS and agriculture. A liberal immigration policy would ease some of that pressure, but risk being interpreted as a betrayal of the Leave campaign’s headline pledge to “take back control” of Britain’s borders once it left the EU.
So what are May’s options, and what are the key policy issues upon which she will have to decide?
Will EU citizens be given special treatment?
Freedom of movement — the right of citizens to live, move, and work freely across the EU — will end in the UK if the government fulfills its pledge to leave the European single market. Yet to be decided is whether EU citizens will continue to receive some watered-down form of preferential treatment afterwards, or whether all non-UK citizens will be subject to the same blanket policies.
The short answer is that we don’t know, because the government itself doesn’t know, and the matter remains subject to lengthy negotiation. It’s likely that EU member states will seek some degree of preferential treatment for EU nationals, and likely that the UK will seek reciprocal rights for UK citizens in the EU.
A source with knowledge of Cabinet discussions told BI earlier this year that ministers who want Britain to have close ties with Brussels after it has departed the bloc pressured May to offer preferential post-Brexit treatment for EU citizens, in order see “what it can unlock” in negotiations. Higher levels of single market access, for example. However, the Cabinet’s chief Brexiteers pushed back, arguing it would keep Britain too close to the EU.
What form that preferential treatment would take would be a matter for negotiation. Brexit secretary David Davis dropped a heavy hint in March when he refused to rule out giving EU citizens preferential treatment. He said that he “did not foresee a visa arrangement” between the UK and the EU from 2021 — a reasonable inference being that he would prefer a less restrictive work permit system. However, this month, The Sunday Times reported that Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary, had “torn up” plans to offer European migrants preferential access to Britain. One thing is clear: the Cabinet, like on so many other Brexit questions, is divided.
Will there be quotas?
The EU’s freedom of movement means the government has little ability to control EU migration.
Citizens outside the EU are subject to a complex system based on quotas by which applicants can apply for one from a range of tiered visas. Tier 1, for example, is reserved for “exceptional talent” and investors, while Tier 5 is for those on short-term voluntary programmes. Some allow applicants to bring families or partners.
The use of quotas itself is heavily criticised by experts as an arbitrary and inflexible system which is unable to meet the demands of a dynamic workforce. Health leaders warned earlier this month, for example, that the NHS faces unprecedented staffing shortages because Tier 2 visas hit their quota for the fifth month in a row, meaning hundreds of overseas doctors were unable to take up jobs in the UK despite massive shortages.
“There are big questions about a possible managed migration system and how much it will be led by labour market demand,” said Joe Owen, associate director at the Institute for Government.
“Do you decide to have a certain amount of visas for a certain sector, i.e. 40,000 visas for tech and 20,000 for agriculture? Specifically, is it going to be centrally managed by the government, or will you take a more lax approach and let employers sponsor who they need?”
In the end, common economic sense should push MPs in the direction of a liberal immigration policy for low and medium-skilled workers too, said King’s College’s Jonathan Portes.
“There is no reason to have quotas,” he said.
“You can perfectly well have a liberal immigration policy that doesn’t include free movement without numerical quotas, one that just has criteria which lets in people who have an offer in jobs above a certain qualification, or a certain earning threshold, or both.”
“The quotas at the moment are the main problem. But […] are we saying we only want rocket scientists and brain surgeons? Are we saying we are actually quite happy having nurses, radiographers, secondary school teachers, and so on?
“Indeed in some sectors — whether it’s farming or food manufacturing — are we having relatively low- or medium-skilled workers as well, if there’s a need? Those are all policy decisions that push you in a more or less liberal direction.”
Can the Home Office cope with a new immigration system?
The prospect of rolling out that quota system to the entire UK immigration system is one that alarms many, and serious question marks remain as to whether the government can effectively implement such a seismic shift in policy.
“There is a question about the government’s capability to actually do this,” said the IfG’s Owen.
“If we go for a managed approach, how do we know what we want, and who makes the decisions? Who is making the call in government about which sectors should be prioritised, and on what evidence? Previously, the Home Office hasn’t had to do this because under the free movement of people the market decides.”
He added: “If you don’t that, you need to develop your own workforce strategy, and there is little evidence to say the government has the capability, people, and functions to do that. There is a really big institutional question.”
A Home Office spokesperson insisted that the department will have the resources to deliver a post-Brexit immigration policy. A source close to the UK Visa and Immigration said the unit wants to bring staff numbers up to 1,500 and the possibility of additional recruitment will soon be reviewed.
“After we leave the EU, we will have in place an immigration system which works in the best interests of the whole of the UK,” they said.
“This system will be based on evidence. The Government has commissioned advice from the Migration Advisory Committee and we continue to engage with a range of stakeholders.
“We will keep staffing under review as negotiations progress, but will always ensure we have the resources and workforce we need to run an effective system.”