19 December 2018

After much delay, the Government has finally published its Immigration White Paper, which sets out the framework of UK migration policy after Brexit. As free movement comes to an end, the Government has signalled its intention to attract high-skilled migrants from around the world, with no preference for those from the EU. The White Paper states that its proposals are intended to “serve the UK public and the economy, and to enable those who come to the UK to integrate and make a positive contribution.” However, it has caused concern among some employers worried about their access to low-skilled migrants after Brexit.

One of the most significant absences from the White Paper is a numerical cap or target. Since 2011, David Cameron and Theresa May have expressed their commitment to reduce annual net migration to the “tens of thousands.” However, this target has never been reached, with net migration in the 12 months to June 2018 reaching 273,000. The White Paper does note the Government’s desire to “control the numbers and type of people coming to live and work here, in line with the continued commitment to reduce annual net migration to sustainable levels as set out in the Conservative Party manifesto, rather than the hundreds of thousands we have consistently seen over the last two decades.” However, there is no clear reference to retaining a specific numerical target. As such, this can be seen as a discrete policy change.

The right to work and study in the UK

The White Paper provides an immigration policy with no preference for those from EU or EEA member states. Most significantly, it prioritises skilled and higher-skilled migrants, and does not propose a cap on the number of these workers that can come to the UK. The number of skilled workers from outside the EU that can presently come to the UK each year stands at 20,700, but the number of entrants has repeatedly exceeded this.

In addition, the Government intends to expand the range of skilled occupations eligible under this immigration route. The paper also floats the idea of maintaining a minimum salary requirement of £30,000 for all skilled migrants, which was recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee. This has been a particularly controversial proposal, and the paper therefore promises that the Government will “engage business and employers as to what salary threshold should be set” prior to making any definitive policy proposal.

The White Paper does not provide any clear route for permanent low-skilled migration. It proposes a temporary migration scheme for low-skilled workers, allowing them to come to the UK for a maximum of 12 months, with a “cooling-off” period of 12 months where they must be absent from the UK. While workers on this scheme can move between employers, they cannot access public funds, extend their stay, switch to other routes, bring dependants, or pursue permanent settlement. Furthermore, this migration route will only be open to citizens of “low risk” countries, and will require extensive criminal record checks. The latter policy matches polling previously conducted for Open Europe, which suggests that the public considers the presence or absence of a criminal record as the most important factor when deciding which immigrants to admit to the UK.

The Government hopes that this scheme would “incentivise businesses to reduce their reliance on migrant labour,” and intends for it to be only temporary. While this could have a substantial impact on certain sectors – for example, in construction and social care – the paper notes that the Government is trialling a scheme for seasonal agricultural work, and that there are other sources of low-skilled work in dependants of skilled workers, students, refugees, and those coming on a family or youth mobility visa.

The White Paper places no limit on the numbers of international students that can come to the UK; however, all students will need to obtain a visa, as part of the Government’s intention to not give any priority to EU citizens. It also promotes a slight expansion of the post-work study regime, including allowing foreign bachelor’s students and Master’s students to stay in the UK for six months after their degrees, and making it easier for those on a student visa to apply for a skilled work visa.

The right to visit the UK

The White Paper proposes a liberal regime for those who wish to visit the UK on a short-term basis. It allows visitors to come to the UK for up to six months, a longer period than those allowed by most other countries in the world. Moreover, citizens from EU countries will not require a visa for such short-term visits. Commitments are also expressed to expand and further modernise the UK’s digital security framework, including allowing e-passport gates to be used by citizens of the EU, Australia, Canada, and a variety of other “low-risk” countries.

Citizens’ rights and the Common Travel Area

As outlined in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, EU citizens who have been living in the UK continuously for five years will be eligible for “settled status.” The same applies for UK citizens living in the EU. EU citizens who have arrived before the end of the transition period but who have stayed for fewer than five years are able to obtain “pre-settled status,” which provides the right to settled status after they have lived in the UK for five years.

Furthermore, as part of the UK and the EU’s shared commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, the Common Travel Area (CTA) between the UK and Ireland will be unaffected by Brexit. Irish and British citizens will be able to travel within the CTA without requiring immigration controls or residence or work permits. Non-Irish EU citizens will continue to have freedom of movement to and from Ireland.

Possible economic impacts

The paper estimates that the number of European citizens coming to the UK will be reduced by 80% in the first five years of the policy (intended to begin in 2021), to around 10-25,000 people a year. The Government’s own economic analysis suggests that there would be an economic cost to its proposals. Imposing a skills requirement and minimum salary threshold of £30,000 would mean that GDP would be 0.4-0.9% lower than it would have been under EU free movement. However, there would be less of an impact on GDP per capita, of between 0.1-0.2%, because overall immigration numbers will decline.

A loss of EEA migration could also present a fiscal cost of between £2 billion and £4 billion over the first five years of the new immigration policy. EEA migrants are often young with few dependants and have a greater fiscal benefit than the resident population. However, the paper argues this could be mitigated over the long term through employers benefiting from more skilled migrants and fewer permanent unskilled migrants.

The report and public perceptions

Open Europe’s polling has shown that the public are generally in favour of an immigration system that does not prioritise EU migrants, and which favours those who have a specific job offer, contribute to a skills shortage, do not claim benefits, and do not have a criminal background. The White Paper’s proposals specifically deal with these concerns. However, it is less clear that the public recognises the dichotomy between high and low skilled immigrants as presented in the paper, with our polling showing broad support for some low-skilled migrants, such as care workers, and lack of support for some high-skilled migrants such as bankers. As such, the report meets some but not all of the concerns over immigration shown by the public.

Of course, it remains to be seen how many of the Government’s proposals will come to fruition; they are subject to future consultation, and preferential treatment for EU citizens may well be a part of any future trade negotiations in the transition period. Nevertheless, the White Paper undoubtedly signals a major departure in UK immigration policy.