Why there will be no Brexit cliff edge for EU employees in Britain

By Lord Green of Deddington
Chairman of Migration Watch UK
Conservative Home, 13 February, 2017 

The pace is quickening as the Brexit negotiations approach. Employers who rely on East European workers are voicing concern that they face a “cliff edge” for their workforce when the UK leaves the EU. Research published today by Migration Watch UK suggests that such an outcome is very unlikely.

For a start, EU workers already here will almost certainly be allowed to stay. The Commons have just voted to ensure that the rights of EU citizens in the UK will not be changed without a further vote in Parliament. In any case, as Paul Goodman has pointed out here, nearly 85 per cent will be entitled to Indefinite Leave to Remain by the time Brexit occurs.

Despite this, there is concern that some EU nationals already in the UK will decide to go home and that future controls on EU migration would mean that the existing work force could not be maintained, leading to shortages of labour in a number of sectors.

If the past is any guide, there is no reason to think that this will happen. Analysis of the Labour Force Survey shows that the East European population in the UK is a largely settled one. In fact, the numbers of EU10 migrants in the UK by year of arrival appear to be increasing rather than decreasing.

This would suggest that few long-term EU10 migrants have left the country and that, actually, some of those who thought that they would only stay for a short period have, in the event, stayed longer.

As for migrants from the original EU14 there is some evidence of departure among those who arrived in 2008 and 2009 but the number who report having arrived in each year since 2010 has been stable.

In any case, do we seriously imagine that large numbers will up sticks and go home the day that Brexit is declared? Most of them have been here for years, some will have settled with their families, they will have learnt English and will be earning three or four times what they might earn in their home countries. They are surely far more likely to stay on.

That said, there is a very important distinction between East European members of the EU and the original fourteen member states. Seventy per cent of the former are in low skilled and low paid work, while 70 per cent of those from the EU14 are in highly skilled roles. This means that expanding the current work permit system to EU workers (as we recommend) would bear much more heavily on East European migrants. Overall, we estimate that it would reduce net migration from the EU as a whole by about 100,000 a year.

Looking ahead, Brexit provides us with an opportunity to make the most of the human capital and talent that we already have in this country. For too long employers have relied on a ready supply of workers from abroad rather than training existing workers. A major study by Baroness Wolf found that the number of employees attending training sessions away from the work place declined from 180,000 in 1998 to just 20,000 in 2014. She concluded that the availability of labour from the EU had contributed to this decline.

Brexit is an opportunity to correct this trend. And let us not forget the 1.6 million unemployed people (including 450,000 aged 18 to 24) who could be helped into work and the 1.1 million people who are in part-time work but are looking for more hours. The Government must not be rushed into making exceptions. Employers will have time to adjust their pay and conditions, their working methods and so on, and they should be encouraged to do so.

There is also a wider, but crucial, political point. The question of immigration was clearly one of the critical issues in the outcome of the referendum. If the Government were to allow special interests to undermine the effectiveness of a new regime for EU migrants, many members of the public would feel betrayed. That would be a deeply damaging outcome to a courageous endeavour.

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