Post-Brexit Migration and Wales: Potential impacts of the new system and recommendations on the priorities for influencing UK immigration policy.

Following the end of free movement on 31st December 2020, thinking turns not only to the impacts of the new immigration system, but also to how devolved nations can seek to respond to these changes. A recent report by Dr Eve Hepburn and Professor David Bell for the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) provides analysis of the impacts on Wales’ labour market, population and society. The report concludes that the resulting reduction in migration will lead to a decrease in population growth, including the possibility of population decline in some rural areas. The new immigration system will also restrict access to labour migrants. The imposition of a salary threshold means it will hit hardest in those localities where salaries are lower. In areas such as Blaenau Gwent (53.4%), Denbighshire (51.7%) and Gwynedd (51.7%), fewer than half of all full-time jobs pay above the £25,600 threshold. Similarly, certain occupations look likely to be hard hit. Nearly all jobs in ‘caring, leisure and other services’ fall below the salary needed (98.2%). The impacts on the Welsh NHS health and social care workforce are the focus of a separate WCPP report by Professor Jonathan Portes.

The free movement of people within the European Union (EU) offered British employers flexible access to workers from across the EU member states. The move to a new UK immigration system that applies to both EU and non-EU nationals represents a considerable new constraint, despite the easing of some aspects of this system such as the removal of quotas and the lowering of salary and skills thresholds. Estimates are that almost three quarters of EU nationals currently in the UK would not have qualified for entry under the new rules. In addition, employers face a greater administrative burden in accessing those who do qualify to work in the UK henceforth. As well as the fees and charges that apply, employers will be required to hold a sponsor licence.

In terms of their objectives and concerns on migration, the Scottish and Welsh Administrations pose a mix of similarities and differences that would be interesting to explore in more depth. Both face the challenge of more pronounced population ageing than the rest of the UK and have concerns regarding the viability of more rural and remote areas. Yet, they differ in their respective populace’s political positioning with regard to the factors on which the UK Government currently bases the legitimacy of its immigration policy. Namely, the electoral mandate for this restrictive approach which is imputed to both the 2016 Brexit Vote and the 2019 General Election. Scotland voted to remain in the EU by 62 per cent, and the Conservative Party lost seven seats in 2019 to the Scottish Nationalist Party, which gained a further six from the Labour Party. By contrast, Wales voted leave by 52.5 per cent, and, while Labour continues to hold the majority of Welsh seats at Westminster, the last election saw the Party lose six to the Conservatives.

The UK government has been staunch in its focus on reducing migration. A Home Office Policy Statement from February 2020 posits the coming restrictions as necessary to create a: ‘high wage, high-skill, high productivity economy’ declaring that ‘employers will need to adjust’.  The new system, while intended to ‘work for the whole of the UK’, currently leaves less room than the Welsh and Scottish Governments would have preferred for the role they perceive migration could play in helping to address demographic challenges, promoting rural sustainability, and filling vacancies more widely across the pay scale. Neither Administration appears satisfied with the level of influence they have had in shaping the new system and Ministers have recently written jointly to Kevin Foster, UK Minister for Future Borders and Immigration.

This WCPP report concludes that “a ‘single system’ will have a differential impact on different parts of the UK and the Welsh Government has been clear that the UK Government’s proposed post-Brexit immigration [rules] ‘don’t work’ for Wales”. The authors suggest the Welsh Government consider establishing an expert group to advise on impacts of changes in migration policy. Since it was set up in October 2018, the Scottish Government Independent Expert Advisory Group has helpfully added to the evidence base informing the policy discussion of migration in Scotland and the Scottish Government’s policy proposals on migration. Hepburn and Bell highlight three sets of measures as particularly important for the Welsh Government when seeking to influence UK immigration policy:

  1. Making the case for regional variation.
  2. Supporting sectoral schemes (especially in social care and agriculture).
  3. Lobbying for a rural visa pilot.

These are good suggestions. In addition, I would suggest that the new system provides new potential for greater regional variation through a Wales-specific shortage occupation list. Particularly given the shortage of suitably detailed data for Wales, there is a strong case for the Welsh Government to actively facilitate stakeholder engagement in Wales with the Migration Advisory Committee on this issue.  However, with so many unknowns in terms of the ultimate impact of Brexit, only time will tell how Wales and the other devolved nations will respond and adapt.