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Analysis

Brexit migration policy a mess, and will be bad for UK

by Luke Lythgoe | 19.12.2018

If you’ve been wondering why the government’s post-Brexit migration policy has taken so long to emerge, the reasons became clear today.

A confused interview by home secretary Sajid Javid was swiftly contradicted by Theresa May in the Commons before a vague White Paper exposed indecision at the top. Ministers are struggling to agree a policy that satisfies the anti-immigration tendencies of the prime minister and hardline Brexiters while also protecting the economy.

For a prime minister who talks so much about respecting the British people, it is time she was honest with them about the benefits of migration. Javid tried to do just that in his BBC interview (listen from 2:10), describing himself as “a strong believer that immigration is good for our country”.

He’s right. And attempts by the government to pile restrictions on the free movement of EU citizens would prove seriously detrimental.

People from EEA countries living in the UK paid £4.7 billion more in taxes than they received in welfare payments and public services in 2016/17. That’s a big boost on for the government’s coffers which can be spent on the NHS and other public services, as well as addressing the inequalities which led to Brexit in the first place.

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Meanwhile, some sectors rely heavily on EU staff, for example farming, hospitality, construction and healthcare. The number of EU nurses and midwives leaving the NHS increased 29% in 2017/18 compared to last year, while the number joining dropped by 87%. That will make staffing our hospitals harder this winter.

The fact parts of our economy are supported by an EU-born workforce makes the prime minister’s drive to bring net migration down to the “tens of thousands” so potentially disastrous.

Javid refused to repeat the target in his interview, and the figure seems to have been replaced by a vaguer aim for “sustainable levels” of migration in the new White Paper. But when asked at PMQs today, May quickly confirmed the target still stood.

The Brexit vote has taken its toll on EU migration already. Annual net migration of EU citizens has more than halved since the 2016 referendum, according to official statistics. And records for the last quarter show EU net migration dropping into negative figures.

Nevertheless May’s target remains out of reach. Net migration from outside the EU remains steady, and is now 248,000 – more than triple EU migration. Brexit will not help bring these numbers down.

Expect battles over this most sensitive of policy areas to continue, both in Cabinet and across the Channel. The government’s White Paper stated “any agreements we eventually reach with the EU relating to mobility will be fully compatible and incorporated into our future (migration) system”. That means the UK’s future migration policy will depend on the trade deal we cut with the EU after Brexit.

If we leave on May’s deal, those negotiations will stretch on for years, and the EU will have even more leverage in that stage of negotiations than it did in the last. As with so much of Brexit, don’t expect answers on migration any time soon.

Edited by James Pritchard

2 Responses to “Brexit migration policy a mess, and will be bad for UK”

  • Can I make a plea for less articles about what will be happening post-Brexit. It takes for granted that Brexit will happen and with everyone thinking that way, it risks being a self fulfilling prophecy.

    If it does happen, we are sunk. We need to be looking at what will happen when we defeat Brexit and remain in the land of the living, what our priorities will be then to clean up two wasted years of decline and reflect on the folly that was avoided

  • I wish ministers would stop hailing the end of Freedom of Movement as some kind of victory. It is robbing millions of UK citizens of what this generation benefitted from, the ability to move around, work or retire in Europe. All government ministers sidestep this point when put to them. This so bad for cultural relations in Europe. In fact, I think its worse than the economic damage caused by Brexit which would be bad enough.
    The 30k salary threshold will in practice prevent young EU workers from coming.
    Also, offering one year visas will mean no company will be bothered taking on EU staff if prevented from extending contracts.

    The irony is that when it comes to negotiating a new trade relationship post Brexit, this will very negatively impact our ability to reach a favourable deal with the EU.
    Didn’t Theresa May say at the outset she wanted a ‘deep and special relationship’ with the EU post Brexit? Just a soundbite?