Brexit, we are told, means Brexit, but what does Brexit mean for immigration – a key issue in the referendum?
As the dust settles after the Conservative Party Conference, it is time to reflect on the full significance of the Prime Minister’s opening speech. She used it to send two very important signals. The first is that the principle of control over immigration is not, and cannot be, a matter for negotiation with our partners. As she put it: “We are going to leave the EU…and that means we are going, once more, to have the freedom to make our own decisions on…the way in which we choose to control immigration”.
The second key point is that it is not possible to exchange concessions on immigration for concessions on trade matters. She said that “some people ask about the “trade off” between controlling immigration and trading with Europe.
But that is the wrong way of looking at things…we will decide for ourselves how we control immigration.” In case anyone had missed the point, she said later “but let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again”.
So how should we proceed within the guidelines that have now been laid down?
The fundamental principle should be that movement between the UK and Europe should be disrupted as little as possible. As Boris Johnson put it, we are leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe. We have a huge network of social, business and historical ties which must be preserved as far as possible. For this reason, there is surely no need to impose any restrictions whatever on tourists, students, those who are self-sufficient and genuine marriage partners coming from the EU.
Member states should have the same interests in these respects.
It is the very large numbers of low-paid or low-skilled workers whose numbers must be reduced if the outcome of the referendum is to be respected.
Fortunately, the facts are rather helpful in pointing a way forward – assuming, of course, that those already here as well as British citizens in the EU will be allowed to stay on.
First of all, about 70 per cent of EU migrants to the UK come here to work or to seek work, so this must be the target for any significant reduction in numbers. No less significant is the fact that 80 per cent of those EU workers who have arrived in the last ten years are in low skilled employment. This suggests that the introduction of a work permit scheme that confines EU migration to skilled employment would achieve a significant reduction in net migration from Europe.
Indeed, our own calculation is that it would reduce net EU migration by approximately 100,000 a year.
This outcome could be achieved by bringing EU migrants into our existing work permit scheme for non-EU skilled workers. This scheme is not “Australian” and is not really “points based” but it already exists, it works reasonably well and it is familiar to employers who already have to check the entitlement to work in the UK of every new employee. It would be for consideration as to whether a formal cap should be applied. Our own estimate is that we would need to grant something like 30,000 work permits a year to EU citizens so as to maintain the current stock of skilled EU workers in Britain and meet the future needs of business.
Where employers claim to have become reliant on EU migrants to fill low-paid jobs, they will need to wean themselves away from their current dependence on cheap foreign labour by improving pay and conditions so as to attract British workers and, perhaps, by investing in improving productivity.
Of course, there would also be other routes. Intra company transfers (ICT’s) are unlimited for international companies based in Britain. It would be entirely logical for this to apply also to senior staff from the EU. There would also need to be provision for the self-employed but hedged around to prevent its exploitation by car-washers and magazine-sellers as has happened in the past.
No doubt the EU will reciprocate. The “Blue Card” scheme that they are currently bringing into effect would be a satisfactory avenue for skilled British workers to find work in the EU. If all this sounds slightly technical, it is. When it comes to immigration, the devil is always in the detail, but I sketch this outline to indicate that there is, indeed, a way forward which could produce a satisfactory outcome for British business while also respecting the clearly expressed wishes of the British public.