A load of fries - but where's the Big MAC?

20 September 2018

Russell Group Senior Policy Analyst Dr Hollie Chandler blogs on the implications of the MAC report on EEA migrants.

The Prime Minister has been clear that freedom of movement will end after Brexit. By implication, new arrangements will be needed for European Economic Area (EEA) migrants after December 2020. Unfortunately, specific proposals from the Home Office on how to replace free movement have not been forthcoming. Instead, Ministers have pointed to the need for more evidence on the overall impact of European migration on our economy, before they decide how to proceed. Cue the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

As an independent body, the MAC was commissioned by the Government to look at this question. In its report published this week, the Committee provided welcome evidence on the value of EEA migration for our country’s productivity and innovation, and it explained that there is little or no evidence that EEA migration drives up UK unemployment or drives down wages.  

What the Committee didn’t do was take a position on whether migration arrangements should be included in the negotiations between the UK and Brussels. Rather they based their recommendations on the assumption that the UK would be “deciding its future migration system in isolation”. Under this scenario, the MAC recommended “moving to a system in which all migration is managed with no preferential access to EU citizens”. And here is where the opportunity has been missed. 

Instead of outlining a new and innovative approach to migration, the MAC has simply recommended tweaks to the current system for skilled workers, also known as the Tier 2 route (made infamous during the summer when its cap on numbers was found to be depriving the NHS of much needed doctors from overseas). Some of these changes could be helpful, for example expanding the skills level of jobs eligible under Tier 2 and getting rid of the cap.

But tinkering with the rules will not resolve arguably the biggest problem with the present system: that it is already bureaucratic and costly for the organisations sponsoring migrants coming to the UK from outside of Europe, including businesses, schools, charities and universities. Simply adding EEA migrants into the mix will only exacerbate this problem. Plus talented Europeans wanting to come here will be expected to wade through off-putting red tape and may be tempted to head elsewhere, especially to other countries in the EU where freedom of movement rules will still apply.

Surely now is the moment for new and creative ideas for an immigration system that is globally competitive, technologically savvy and supports the UK’s future outside the EU, while regaining public trust?

One such proposal we've put forward is for a new European Skills Permit. Open to all sectors, serving business as much as education, the Permit would be available to EEA nationals qualified to degree level or above who can demonstrate a job offer or research grant, and students with a place at an accredited institution. They would have the right to stay in the UK for up to five years for work and study. The Permit could sit alongside any route introduced for lower skilled work. 

It would be administered through a system of secure online accounts, building on the digital platform in development for the Government’s Settlement Scheme for EU migrants already living here and those who will arrive before the end of transition. Appropriate and enforceable safeguards would of course be needed to ensure permit holders are suitably qualified, are genuinely working or studying and do not stay longer than they are permitted. But it is worth emphasising that recent exit checks data released by the Government confirms that 97% of skilled workers and students requiring visas comply with their terms and depart the UK on time.

Our proposal would work on a new balance of responsibility, in which greater expectations are placed on individuals to keep their personal information up to date, employers and other organisations make robust checks, and the Home Office is able to oversee the system effectively and take enforcement action where necessary. This model could be rolled out to other nations over time, for example as part of future trade deals.

This sort of fresh thinking on migration post-Brexit is what we were hoping for from the MAC. Instead what we received was a justification for Whitehall to do more of the same. How Ministers respond will be telling. Does the Government want to build an immigration system that is intelligent, modern and welcoming to global talent? Or will it be content with tweaking a system that is already under strain and risks leaving the UK in the tailwinds of its competitors? Let’s see.

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