U.K. Urged to End Privileged Access to European Migrants

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. shouldn’t favor EU workers in the post-Brexit labor market, the government’s immigration adviser said, urging ministers to prioritize skilled workers who bring clear benefits to the economy.

Britain should abolish its cap on so-called Tier 2 visas for skilled workers, and open up the category also to “medium-skill jobs,’’ the Migration Advisory Committee said Tuesday in a report. At the same time, it said the U.K. should limit access to low-skilled workers.

“The MAC’s core recommendation is for the U.K. to be more open to skilled workers from around the world and to limit access to low-skilled workers,” MAC Chairman Alan Manning said. “High-skilled workers bring clear benefits to the U.K. economy and should be actively encouraged.”

Prime Minister Theresa May has said she’ll lay out plans for Britain’s post-Brexit immigration system later in the fall, after taking guidance from the MAC. She and Home Secretary Sajid Javid have signaled EU citizens are unlikely to have the same privileged access to the British labor market, and Tuesday’s report will support their push for a system that doesn’t discriminate based on nationality -- even if it risks antagonizing the EU in Brexit negotiations.

“A migrant’s impact depends on factors such as their skills, employment, age and use of public services, and not fundamentally on their nationality,” the MAC wrote. Medium-skilled jobs are the sort taken up by people who have completed secondary schooling to the age of 18. They include technicians, skilled construction workers and some managers in hospitality.

Other findings by the MAC include:

  • The only specific low-skilled program should be for agricultural workers
  • Any new system should be U.K.-wide, rather than allowing different regions to operate different programs
  • MAC’s analysis suggests migration has increased house prices, though other factors also contribute
  • While migrants make up a small portion of tenants of social housing, the fact that so few new homes are being built means “this is inevitably at the expense of other potential tenants”
  • The government should retain its salary thresholds for Tier 2 immigrants
  • Migration isn’t a “major” factor in suppressing wages, though it may have some impact on lower-skilled workers

The Home Office said in a statement it will be guided by the MAC report as it devises a new immigration system, which will be implemented from 2021.

“The government is clear that EU citizens play an important and positive role in our economy and society and we want that to continue after we leave,” it said. “We will also seek to agree a framework for mobility which will support businesses to provide services and move their talented people between the U.K. and the EU.”

But businesses are worried that May will stick to an eight-year-old target, which the Conservatives have never come close to achieving, to cut net immigration to below 100,000, from about 270,000 now. With Britain enjoying near record employment, recruitment difficulties are already emerging, particularly in sectors which rely heavily on foreign workers.

“No one other than Theresa May and maybe one or two of her officials thinks that the net migration target is a good idea,” said Mark Hilton, immigration policy director at London First, which campaigns for the capital’s businesses. “We need these people, and without them our economy is severely at risk. These are the messages that we hear from businesses in construction, in tech, in hospitality and in other sectors."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan described the report as a “missed opportunity” and warned that any decision to prioritize reducing immigration at the expense of economic growth will “damage our country for years to come.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.