The UK has no good options on how to ‘control’ migration after Brexit

When the Government can’t recruit enough nurses and teachers, how does it expect to manage EU migration properly.

This week as the risk of no deal looms, number 10 reconfirmed their commitment to rejecting the free movement of workers between the UK and the EU. Re-taking control of the UK borders has long been one of the central tenets of what the government defines as a successful Brexit. Immigration should not be treated this way, and with Brexit discussions potentially hinging on the issue, re-thinking this attitude to migration would aid negotiations. The freedom of movement from European workers to the UK is essential to the UK economy and to lose it would put the UK’s financial future at risk.

Significant details have not been released on the exact nature of the migration system favoured by Theresa May’s government after Brexit, but the options available are not ideal. If the UK government is to fully “control” migration, that would force them into a position where they either respond to every job market based on the need, or they set an arbitrary financial cap or a quota on migrants. With any option, controlling migration comes with huge costs.

The first option would put huge pressure on UK pubic servants, at a time where they are already making significant mistakes in managing migration. It would be difficult to manage, and whilst it would appear to be more flexible, this system would be far less efficient than the current one. Time would need to be taken to understand and implement responses to the needs of labour markets. Recognising when a part of the economy needs a supply of labour, would be slower if a decision was made by government, and the process of determining it would cost the taxpayer as it happens.

If the government wants to become involved in micromanaging the supply of labour, two notable examples should make them think twice, the lack of teachers and nurses. 9 out of 10 UK head teachers struggle to fill their posts according to a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders. For nurses, recent NHS statistics showed on average the UK fill less than 10% of vacant jobs for nurses. There are several reasons for these statistics, but one that underlies them all is a lack of long term planning by multiple governments. It is a difficult task, and reflects that the UK government struggles when it comes to planning for labour markets. If they failed here why would they succeed in recognizing which migrants to let in for the entire UK?

An alternative option is that of a maximum quota of immigrants a year, for example the UK could set a cap at 100,000 people moving to the UK a year. One case that would likely occur with a maximum cap of immigrants is that of a top footballer. If the UK reaches their migrant cap in August, and later that month Arsenal agree to sign a top French footballer for £50 million, then this would be halted under a quota system (this does not even speak for doctors, academics and many others). It proves arbitrary and making exceptions complicates the process. When an exception the issues already outlined begin to be encountered. This could lead to an unfair system where some are allowed in to a country, and others with legitimate reason to do so, are not. In this example, an exception to let the footballer may occur, whilst a French firefighter does not get the same treatment. If no exception is made, then posts simply go unfilled, to the detriment of businesses and public services.

The Australian points style system, a mixture of both approaches, which has previously been advocated by government ministers Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, has failed to work. This is primarily as it fails to keep up with what is needed across the country and has been tweaked so businesses get more of a say in who comes into the country. The issues encountered by Australia, would be seen in the UK, and worsened by the lack of experience of those implementing it. The UK should not seek to replicate a failing system.

Changing the approach to migration and being open to staying in a customs union allows the UK to bypass one of the central issues in the Brexit negotiations. This would solve the border dispute between the North and the Republic of Ireland. The desire to control migration is the central factor which has led to the UK government’s position of having border checks, technological or not. The Republic of Ireland and the EU reject this option, and allowing free movement to continue, would solve this central issue in negotiations.

There are many cases of European workers, who may not pass a threshold for a high earning salary, that make the UK richer, culturally and economically. Some of these are already in short supply and this could only get worse. For example there are worries for fruit pickers after Brexit, chefs who define modern British food  or plumbers and electricians who keep the UK going.

Unpicking the Irish border debate, helping UK businesses and enriching British culture are all benefits in a change of stance for Theresa May’s government, and to insist on the current path will make the UK poorer in many ways. If the UK continues on the route that it’s going, control will soon become an awkward burden.