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The post-Brexit immigration system: where next?



Jonathan Portes gives an overview of UK in a Changing Europe’s new report on the post-Brexit immigration system, highlighting what has happened to immigration policy and immigration trends since the Brexit vote and what might happen next.

The last few years have seen the biggest shakeup in the UK migration system in at least half a century, coinciding with record levels of immigration across all the main routes – work, students and refugees. In our new report, we explore what has happened to immigration policy and immigration trends since the Brexit vote – and what might happen next.

Immigration, and in particular free movement, was a key driver of the vote to leave the European Union. However, although most voters expected Brexit to result in a fall in immigration, Vote Leave’s commitment was to end free movement and to introduce a new system for work migration that does not discriminate by country of origin and that prioritises skilled work.

The system introduced in January 2021 does broadly that, with skill and salary thresholds that mean that in principle non-UK residents can qualify for a Skilled Work Visa for most high- and middle-skill jobs. The initial impact of this has been to reduce migration in sectors that were previously reliant on relatively lower skilled and lower paid workers from the EU, particularly hospitality and transport, aggravating labour shortages; we estimate that, compared to pre-pandemic trends, there is a shortfall of more than 400,000 EU-origin workers.

However, there is little evidence so far that this has resulted in any significant increase in relative pay in these sectors. Correspondingly, other sectors, such as ICT and professional services, have benefited from the more liberal provisions of the new system for relatively highly paid workers from outside the EU. This adjustment may have some way to run, since there are many occupations which would in principle be eligible under the new system but where few visas have been issued so far. By far the largest increase in work migration has been in the health and care sector, where the system is even more liberal and has recently been extended to low paid jobs in social care.

At the same time as these shifts in work-related migration, there have been large increases in the numbers arriving on other migration routes. While UK universities are less attractive for EU students, this has been more than offset by an increase in international students from outside the EU, with the new Graduate Visa proving particularly attractive for some nationalities. In the last two years there have also been large numbers of arrivals from Hong Kong and Ukraine.

Some of these factors will only provide a temporary boost to overall net migration, which will almost certainly fall back from current levels, but overall net migration is likely to remain relatively high by historical standards for the foreseeable future. However, public concern about overall migration levels appears far more muted than in the run-up to the referendum. There has been a substantial and sustained shift towards more positive attitudes towards migration in general, and in particular for work-related migration, as long as it is perceived to be controlled and in sectors or jobs where there is demand for workers.

What might all this mean for future policy? Debates on UK immigration policy are often framed as trade-offs between economic and political imperatives, with business and those seeking to prioritise growth seeking a more liberal migration policy, particularly in sectors facing skill or labour shortages, while politicians who fear the potency of anti-immigration sentiments prefer a more restrictive approach. This tension has often been mirrored within government, with the Home Office prioritising ‘control’ while the Treasury, the Department for Business, in its various incarnations, and the Department for Education pushing for liberalisation. This is indeed reflected in part in current debates, with the current Home Secretary seeking to tighten policy, especially on students, even as the OBR points out that increased immigration is one of the few levers that can reliably deliver higher growth in the short term.

As we enter election territory, all parties may want to take a more nuanced and longer term view, and consider the implications both of changing migration trends and the concurrent shift in attitudes. Though Labour’s approach to immigration is viewed more positively than that of the Conservatives for the first time in decades – albeit with relatively few substantive policy differences – public confidence in both main parties remains exceptionally low. Voters have lost faith in the government, but remain sceptical of the opposition.

Yet, for the first time in many years, the path to rebuilding public support is relatively clear. The public clearly expect transparent and fair rules for immigration, which are effectively implemented. But there is a broad consensus that any system should meet the needs of the economy and labour market, reward contribution, and be relatively generous towards genuine refugees – although the definition of the latter, and how policy on asylum and refugees should operate in practice, remain highly contested. A government which credibly delivers these outcomes will find that, thanks to a mixture of demographic and attitudinal shifts, an open and flexible migration system can enjoy strong majority support. The debates to come on immigration in the next decade could be very different to the ones we have had before.

The positive turn in public opinion, and the general acceptance of the principles – if not necessarily the detail – of the post-Brexit immigration system should offer an opportunity to secure public consent for an approach that reflects both economic realities and political constraints. But that will require a degree of commitment, in particular to maintaining a broadly stable policy environment despite inevitable political and business pressures to tinker with the system in one way or another. This means largely ‘looking through’ the very large increases in the headline figures, mostly driven by temporary factors, rather than overreacting with hasty policy change. It will also require an approach to refugee flows that addresses current pressures in a more humane and cost-effective way, while managing public expectations about the power of the tools the government holds.

By Jonathan Portes, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe. 

The report ‘Immigration after Brexit: where are we going?’ can be found via the UK in a Changing Europe website here.

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