Immigration Policy Post-Brexit

Robert Wright, Professor of Economics, University of Strathclyde. Robert’s expertise is in the economics of demography and he has published widely in the field of population change and migration.

Evidence from social surveys consistently indicate that a significant number of the British population takes a dim view of immigration. It is believed that immigration is “too high” and must be reduced as a political priority. Much of this thinking is driven by a belief that immigration can have a negative impact on the job prospects for existing residents and that it also can increase the welfare bill. Scotland is little different in this respect. Unlike what many Scottish politicians like to assume, Scotland is by no means a “pro-immigration” country. Although there are differences in attitudes between Scotland and the rest of the UK when it comes to immigration, it is more accurate to describe Scotland as being “less negative” rather than in any way “more positive” about immigration.

Given the existence of a strong anti-immigration sentiment nationally, it is not surprising that immigration was the key—if not the main—bargaining chip of the Leave campaign in the recent BREXIT referendum. It was argued that only by leaving the EU, and hence “taking back control of our borders”, could immigration be “stopped”. Such a view is appealing to many since the “free movement of people” is one of the four economic freedoms guaranteed under EU law. At a practical level, what this means that citizens of the other 27 EU member states have a “right” to live, work and stay in the UK without any visa requirements. This right does not extend to non-EU nationals residing these EU member states because the UK is not part of the so-called Blue Card work permit programme.

The key question is will leaving the EU stop immigration to the UK? The answer is clearly “no”. Some facts first. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), for the year ending in June 2015, net-migration in the UK was +336,000 people. Net-migration is the difference between immigration (those coming) and emigration (those leaving). In the same period, immigration was +636,000 and emigration was +300,000. Put slightly differently, for every one person who moves from the UK, two persons move to the UK.

What is odd to many observers is that 83,000 of these immigrants (around 13%) are in fact British citizens. So unless the Government is prepared to legislate that British citizens cannot immigrate to their country of citizenship (and likely their country of birth) then immigration can never be “stopped”! With respect to the citizenship of the remaining 87% of immigrants, 267,000 (around 42%) are EU citizens and 286,000 (around 45%) are non-EU citizens. Contrary to what was stated by some prominent members of the Leave campaign, there are more immigrants coming to the UK from non-EU countries than from EU countries. This has always been the case, although in recent years the gap between the two groups of immigrants has   closed. Currently there are nearly twice as many immigrants from South-east Asia (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) than there are from Poland.

If EU immigration is non-regulated, then how is non-EU immigration regulated? Like all countries, the UK has an immigration system that non-EU citizens apply to if they want to immigrate. In 2008, the system was overhauled, with a more streamlined points-based system being put in place that is administered by the UK Border Agency. This system is neither new nor novel. The first points-based immigration system was introduced by Canada in 1967 and copied by Australia in 1989. At the core of these systems is the employability of immigrants and UK system is no different in this respect.  People are essentially scored on their employability and if some threshold is achieved then the person is eligible to immigrate.

It is therefore not surprising that about half of immigrants report that the reason for immigrating is “work related”. Another quarter report that the reason for immigrating is to study, mainly at higher education institutions such as universities. Around 12% of immigrants are classified as an “accompanying person”, which are mainly spouses and children, but also include people who immigrate to marry a UK citizen. Once these three groups are added up, there are not many people left in the “other group”.

If the UK is successful in negotiating out of its commitment to the free movement of people, then the most likely outcome is that people from EU countries who want to immigrate will need to apply in the same way as people from non-EU countries. There is no compelling reason to have some form of separate system for EU citizens. Given this will make it more difficult to immigrate, I expect this will drastically reduce immigration from EU countries. Once all immigration to the UK (apart from the immigration of UK citizens) is controlled and regulated by the formal immigration system, then more likely it will be for David Cameron’s 2010 promise of reducing “net-migration to tens of thousands” to be met. Whether reducing immigration to such levels is desirable is another question…….