Ending unfettered free movement of people remains a vital element of Brexit

Ending unfettered free movement of people remains a vital element of Brexit

Freedom of movement from the EU was one of the biggest single factors behind the Brexit vote. A Brexit without a clear end to free movement in its current form is neither possible nor desirable.

But a balanced outcome should be achievable which allows for gradual reductions in inflows, especially of low-skill EU workers, while retaining a high degree of continuity in other areas. We can respond to the legitimate anxiety about over-rapid change and labour market competition while remaining an open, hub economy and country, especially in relation to skilled professionals and students from the EU.

Earlier this week I produced a report, Immigration After Brexit, for the Policy Exchange think-tank that advocates several steps to achieve this balanced outcome. They include: no automatic right of residence for EU citizens coming in the future; a “light-touch” five-year work permit for future EU professionals to be cleared in less than a month; more restrictive two-year permits for unskilled workers with preference for those willing to work anti-social hours; continuing visa-free travel for tourism and short trips and no significant change in arrangements for students and retirees; creation of new temporary work programmes including in agriculture and for young people.

Critics in The Guardian and elsewhere caricatured the report as proposing that in future EU citizens would only be allowed to work under “night time only” visas. There was also a bizarre eruption of outrage on Twitter about my use of the term “stock” as in “the stock of EU workers in the UK”. The terms stocks and flows are completely commonplace when describing groups of people among social scientists and economists and you will find reports from organisations like the UN, OECD and ONS littered with this kind of language. But a history professor objected to such “objectification” and was supported by hundreds of others attached to the FBPE hashtag.

But it is worth reminding ourselves why it is so important to end free movement, especially for low-skilled workers. The creaking British growth model has been based in the past generation on easy hire and fire and constant expansion of the labour supply, and it has thus become dependent on high levels of immigration (most from the EU is of low and middling skill level).

Ending free movement in a measured way is just what the low-productivity British economy needs. EU citizens make up about 7 per cent of the UK workforce, rising to 17 per cent in London, and some sectors such as food manufacturing (30 per cent) and London house-building (56 per cent) have become damagingly over-dependent on EU labour.

These inflows over the last 15 years have underpinned economic growth but at some cost to British people in the bottom half of the income and educational spectrum: some irresponsible employers have sharply cut training budgets (see the paper by Francis Green at UCL), others have filled entire factories and warehouses with people from eastern Europe.

Indeed many British workers have experienced a kind of “double whammy”. First their factories closed, unable to compete with lower cost producers in the developing world, but then after the accession of the former communist countries into the EU in 2004 a new workforce arrived to compete with them in the domestic labour market.

And so long as already trained labour was flowing in from abroad, there has been insufficient incentive on government and business to sort out our own education and training systems, especially for people at the bottom end of society (many from ethnic minorities). Yet this is key to both higher productivity and to renewing the national social contract with some of our most powerless citizens. We need to focus more on raising “the general competence of society” (the phrase used by Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites) rather than sending everyone to university.

As Chris Bickerton of Cambridge University has put it:

“Immigration was a big issue in the referendum not because British people are xenophobic but because immigration is at the heart of the British growth model. As a result the UK experiences life in the EU single market through the prism of EU nationals coming to live and work in the UK. Other EU states, with different growth models, experience the EU single market in other ways: through violations of the labour code or through high levels of emigration.”

In this country there is a cultural aspect to this too. Freedom of movement has created a “neither one thing nor the other” category of resident: someone who is neither a temporary visitor/guest to a country, such as a tourist, nor someone who is making a permanent commitment to a new country in the manner of the traditional immigrant. Many of those taking advantage of free movement in recent years have enjoyed the rights of the latter with the attitude of the former, one reason free movement has been unpopular in many areas. The openness of free movement has also made it very hard for local and national authorities to plan for future population growth and infrastructure needs.

Nevertheless, apart from that work permit requirement — light touch for skilled, much less so for unskilled — much continuity is possible; and even when it comes to jobs and social rights, future EU citizens should continue to have some limited special access to the UK labour market and welfare state as a symbol of the “deep and special” relationship the UK is seeking.

And contrary to the scare-mongering, voiced by Vince Cable and others, ending free movement in the way I have suggested will not turn Britain into a kind of European North Korea with our young people all sitting miserably at home while the rest of Europe goes to the dance.

As there are about 35 million arrivals each year to the UK from EU countries, both the immigration authorities and the tourism industry have a strong interest in retaining visa-free travel for tourism and short visits (and the same is true in the rest of Europe). So don’t throw away the back-pack.

I further propose that we should offer continuity in arrangements for EU students in terms of fees and access to the government loan system (in the expectation that European colleges will do the same).

The number of undergraduates from the EU is not large, about 25,000 a year, and it would send a helpful signal about the UK wanting to remain the leading European centre for higher education, innovation and research (nearly half of EU students are postgraduates).

I also suggest that we should extend the current Youth Mobility Visa that offers two year access to the UK for 18-30 year olds from places like Australia and Taiwan to all EU states, something that should allay the fears of the hospitality sector.

Britain will remain a welcoming society to future EU citizens, on top of the 3 million already here. Ending free movement is, however, a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for healing domestic wounds and nudging us onto a new growth path, ironically one that’s more like the higher-productivity continental economies.