Business leaders have lined up to criticise the government’s migration advisory committee (MAC) after it proposed an “ignorant and elitist” ban on foreign workers earning less than £30,000 a year from obtaining visas to work in the UK after Brexit.
Organisations representing hauliers, housebuilders and the hospitality sector were among those to sound the alarm after the committee said only “higher skilled” workers should be allowed visas, with no preferential access given to European Union citizens.
Richard Burnett, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, which represents 7,000 hauliers, said: “We need an immigration policy across all skill levels. It is about what our businesses need. The idea that only high-skilled immigration should be allowed is both ignorant and elitist.”
Brian Berry, the chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, warned that his industry would be crippled: “It’s not at all clear that EU workers with important skills already in short supply, like bricklaying and carpentry, will not fall foul of a crude and limited definition of ‘high-skilled’ worker.”
Des Gunewardena, the chairman and CEO of D&D London, the owner of 40 upmarket restaurants, warned that businesses like his could be affected if the recommendations were taken up. “I’ve got no doubt that if movement of staff becomes difficult, we will need to scale back sharply,” he said.
Alan Manning, the committee’s chairman, had said that if the UK had a free hand in deciding its immigration policy then “our recommendation is for a less restrictive regime for higher-skilled workers” and that “for lower-skilled workers, we do not see the need for a work-related [visa] scheme”.
Its report said that the existing tier 2 skilled workers scheme, which currently applies to people outside the European Economic Area (EEA) for skilled jobs earning more than £30,000 a year, could provide a template for a future migration scheme post-Brexit as long as the cap on employing 20,700 people a year was removed.
The committee made clear that ministers could develop an alternative immigration policy with the EU, which would be linked to a trade package as part of the exit negotiations. The committee added that did “not express a view on whether immigration should be part of the EU negotiations”.
The CBI said it was not a roadmap for a new system for that reason, and said Britain should link an open immigration policy to the trade deals it is able to strike after Brexit.
Matthew Fell, the CBI’s policy director, said: “If it is the government’s intention to implement a global system, preferential access for countries where the UK has trade deals will be essential to provide the basis for an open and controlled system that can work for the UK’s economy.”
The MAC was set up to advise on the UK’s migration policy after Brexit, with a new regime expected to start when the transition period ends in 2021. It is designed to inform a white paper that has repeatedly been delayed but is due this autumn.
The scale of the pushback will strengthen the hand of the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and the business secretary, Greg Clark, both of whom want to soften the impact of Brexit with a less restrictive immigration policy, although they have to contend with cabinet opposition from Sajid Javid at the Home Office and wider pressure from the hard Brexit wing of the Conservative party.
There was even alarm raised among some professional sectors over the MAC proposal that the UK should consider adopting a migration policy along the lines of Canada, which Manning said had “an open, welcoming approach to migration but no free movement agreement with any other country”.
Alan Vallance, the chief executive of theRoyal Institute of British Architects, saidthe recommendations “would have profound implications for architecture” because one in five architects working in the UK are already from the EU.
EU citizens have, until now, been able to enter the UK freely, seeking work on arrival. Concerns about the impact of free movement is considered to be one of the central reasons why the country voted for Brexit, with the annual 100,000 target for net migration exceeded every year since it was introduced by David Cameron.
Net migration to the UK in the year to the end of March 2018 was 270,000, an increase of 28,000 year on year. But net migration from the EU sank to 87,000 in the same period, the lowest level since the Brexit vote in June 2016, according to the most recent set of figures from the Office of National Statistics.
Manning said the only area a visa scheme for lower-skilled workers could be required was the “possible exception” of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. He concluded, in the foreword the MAC’s final report that there would be enough low-skilled workers in the UK because “most of the existing stock will remain and there would likely be a continued flow through family migration or the existing youth mobility scheme”.
The MAC report also said EEA migration has had a small impact on wages and employment in the UK, arguing it has had “neither the large negative effects claimed by some, nor the benefits claimed by others”.
A related study by Oxford Economics to inform the MAC’s analysis concluded that the average UK-based migrant from the rest of Europecontributed approximately £2,300 more to UK public finances in 2016/17 than the average UK adult. Each UK-born adult contributed £70 less than the average, it added.
Stephen Clarke, a senior economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said: “If enacted, these proposals would effectively end low-skilled migration, while prioritising mid and high-skill migration in areas where we have labour shortages. This would represent a huge shift for low-paying sectors like food manufacturing, hotels and domestic personnel, where over one in five workers are migrants.”
Labour said that it did not accept the distinction between high and low skilled put forward in the report, arguing that any future migration policy should be based on the needs of each industrial sector.
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, added: “Labour has said that our immigration policy needs to be based on our economic needs, while meeting our legal obligations and treating people fairly – which means ending the discrimination against non-EU migrants, especially from the Commonwealth.”