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12 February 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:59pm

Ending free movement will make us all poorer and hurt those involved. So why do it?

The only way to avoid economic harm and personal misery is to completely rethink our immigration policy.

By Peter Starkings

Ending free movement isn’t as simple as it looks. Just like Brexit, even if you think it’s a good idea, the broad principle is straightforward but the devil is in the detail.

So when the government published its plan at the end of last year, we at Global Future decided to take a proper look under the hood. 

The headlines are well known – a one-world system in which everyone outside the UK faces the same visa requirements, with a £30,000 salary threshold so only the (so-called) high-skilled can get in.

The obvious problems with this approach are well rehearsed – the high bar is bad for business, catastrophic for social care, and, as Jess Phillips explained in the Commons, equating pay and skill is an insult to nurses, teachers, carers and anyone else working hard in fields that don’t pay enough to fit Whitehall’s new definition of useful work.

What’s more, by the government’s own admission, this is a plan to make us poorer: it would take 0.9 per cent from the country’s GDP and cost the Budget bottom line £4bn in its first five years alone. But the damage to Britain goes deeper – and that’s what we have tried to explore in our latest report.  

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Undeniably, the overall plan represents a clear shift towards a more complex and burdensome immigration system. Whatever you think of free movement – and to be clear, I think it has been very good for Britain – it’s a very simple system. Replacing it is complicated, and, as the government have found, drags ministers into decisions which run counter to wider government strategy.

For the employers we want to drive to Britain, ending free movement means £1bn in new red tape as the Europeans who are allowed in find they require a sponsored visas. The average total cost to businesses and public service providers for each European migrant worker comes in at an eye-watering £12,500 per person – that’s an awful lot more than zero. And of course that will include siphoning hundreds of millions from our hard pressed NHS across to the Home Office in fees. 

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For one of the UK’s most successful industries – higher education – competing with the best universities across the world will be much more difficult with a new £80m barrier to European students studying here. New fees and more admin means the UK becomes less attractive, it is as simple as that.

And on integration, the proposed temporary workers scheme – 12-month work visas for those earning under £30k – could have been specifically designed to increase churn, disincentivise learning English and disrupt local labour markets with transient workers. Exactly the opposite of what the Home Office tells us it wants, and the concerns this giant change was designed to address.

Finally, there is settled status – the scheme to register the millions of Europeans currently living in the UK.

Here’s the plan: a group of migrants came to Britain under one set of rules, those rules are going to change leaving that group in need of documentation. There’s evidence that some of that population aren’t aware of the change, and if they don’t get their papers in order – or if a Home Office error means they can’t get registered – they fall into the hostile environment.

Ring any bells? Yep, that’s the Windrush scandal. And the settled status plan. Some scandals come clean out of the blue, others, like Universal Credit, are long-predicted yet seemingly inevitable. That’s how settled status looks to us – after all if just 0.1 per cent of Europeans living in the UK fall through the gaps that’s up to 5,000 people.

The root problem here of course is the hostile environment. But crucially it’s not just the official plan – it’s the way that that approach filters down into the behaviour of employers and landlords, who become incentivised to discriminate. There is no question that there are good officials in the Home Office, doing their best to avert a crisis and working through the obvious places where people could fall between the gaps. But the same is true over at the Department for Work and Pensions, and Universal Credit is still a mess.

Ultimately, our view is clear: the problem with the plan comes at the very top – ending free movement. It is encouraging to see Labour inching back towards the view, shared by a large majority of its members and supporters, that the system should be retained. But even if ministers go through with the broad thrust of these proposals there are things we can do to lessen the damage – from putting vital social care workers on the shortage occupation list, to extending the temporary visa to three years, exempting the NHS from fees and ending the hostile environment (which has to mean a lot more than just changing its name.)

The government presents ending free movement as the great prize at the centre of its Brexit strategy. But ultimately this White Paper is a plan to close ourselves off from the world. That’s not something to celebrate – it’s a dreadful mistake.

Peter Starkings is managing director of the think tank Global Future.