19 September 2018

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), an independent body advising the Government, yesterday published its final report EEA Migration in the UK, over a year after it was commissioned by the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. The 140-page document looks at the overall impact of EEA migration and sets out recommendations for future immigration policy. It comes as the Prime Minister, Theresa May, reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to end the existing free movement arrangements after Brexit.

The MAC offers a positive but balanced picture of the impact of free movement in the UK. It shows the beneficial impact that migration has had on the economy, and debunks negative myths such as the claim that migrants represent a drain on welfare. As the report says, “EEA migration as a whole has not harmed the existing resident population overall, as has been claimed by some, but also has not had the significant benefit claimed by others”. It concludes that the positive impact made by higher-skilled migrants is very clear, but seems less persuaded that this is so in the case of lower-skilled migrants.

The most important aspect of the report is what it has to say about the development of a new, post-Brexit, immigration policy. In his foreword to the report, MAC Chair, Alan Manning, explained that if “immigration is not to be part of the negotiations with the EU, and the UK is deciding its migration system in isolation, we recommend moving to a system in which all immigration is managed with no preferential access to EU citizens”.   This goes beyond the idea of tweaking the existing policy of free movement. While clearly intended to be a theoretical exercise, in the sense that the Government will not have a completely free hand in negotiations with the EU, the proposals are a reminder of how radically the UK immigration system may change in the coming years.  The MAC assumes that under a new regime:

  • existing free movement rights would end;
  • EU and non-EU citizens would have to abide by the same migration rules, but the existing visa system would be overhauled;
  • there would be fewer restrictions for high-skilled workers than for low skilled workers; and
  • there would continue to be a single migration policy for the whole of the UK.

To make it easier for highly-skilled workers to come to the UK, the MAC proposes a range of policies including the removal of the Tier 2 cap, and the extension of the Tier 2 visa to include medium-skilled as well as highly-skilled workers, though it also proposes the retention of the existing tier 2 £30,000 salary threshold – something which has been criticised by the CBI and others. The MAC points out that ending free movement would lead to restrictions on lower-skilled migrants coming to the UK, but argues against a separate route for low-skilled workers. The other live political issue is the question of regional variation in future migration policy. The MAC sets itself against those who have been demanding the devolution of migration policy, particularly the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and some of the parties Northern Ireland.

Overall, then, the MAC report paves the way for the Government to develop a skills-based immigration system which serves the needs of UK PLC. But, a wider debate is now needed. Just as there are myths about the impact of immigration, there are also myths about what the public thinks about immigration. Open Europe’s report “Beyond the Westminster Bubble” found that the public has nuanced views on immigration, expressing a preference for a system with greater controls on immigration over a simple reduction in numbers. A word of caution is also needed about whether the public relates to economists’ definitions of ‘high-skilled’ and ‘low-skilled’ jobs: the question of whether a job is ‘socially useful’ also informs opinions. However, with Brexit, the Government has a unique opportunity – and also a responsibility – to develop a new immigration policy that commands the trust of the British public. In the real world, the Government will not have as much freedom as it may like. It seems likely that the question of preferential access for EU migrants will form part of any final Brexit deal. Employers and recruiters will continue to want access to low-skilled workers, and they will be critical of the additional bureaucracy a new visa policy would involve.

Despite these concerns, the MAC report has performed a useful service, and the Home Office will have to take its proposals on board as it develops a post-Brexit immigration policy.