The future of the UK’s immigration system after Brexit will be decided this year when the government brings forward its Immigration Bill.
Immigration has long been one of the most contentious issues in politics, and ministers will be seeking to draw up legislation that meets the demands of both the voting public and businesses.
Since her time as home secretary, Theresa May has championed the government’s promise to bring net migration down to the “tens of thousands”, and it is unlikely she will want to soften her stance now.
However, the business community has warned that shutting down the UK border will be harmful to the economy. Overseas talent is particularly important to the City; almost one in five workers in the Square Mile were from a European country in 2016, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.
May’s Cabinet colleagues have recognised the demands of firms; Brexit secretary David Davis has said leaving the EU “won’t mean pulling up the drawbridge” and has proposed a special travel regime for bankers and professionals.
So, how might the City, and other businesses in London, maintain access to foreign workers after Brexit?
The City of London has proposed a regional visa system, similar to systems used in both Australia and Canada to encourage migration towards parts of the country where new entrants are needed most.
Employment needs would be identified by local authorities and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the visa system would allow migrants to fill vacancies. The regional visa system could be governed either by local authorities, or UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), who would require employers to outline a business case when requesting visas. Councils or UKVI would also consider whether efforts were being made to upskill the local population.
Julia Onslow-Cole, partner and Head of Immigration at PwC, said regional visas would help build public trust in immigration.
“It would help people in the regions to understand more about immigration needs,” she said. “People do not quite understand what people are doing in their areas.”
The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) has made a proposal that runs along similar lines. The business group has said London should have its own visa system, arguing that the capital has distinct immigration needs.
Under the LCCI’s proposal, the Home Office would retain responsibility for immigration, but the London mayor and the capital’s business organisations would form a sponsorship body for the London region. The body would be licensed by UKVI to act as a broker between firms and permit applicants, with applicants prioritised according to a yearly skills audit. Holders of the London work permit could live and work in London for a time specified by their work contract.
Sean McKee, director of policy at LCCI, says such a system is preferable because it wouldn’t require big changes to current processes.
“You don’t need to be Einstein to work this out,” he said. “We should tinker with, or tweak or amend the current system because we don’t have time for an overhaul before Brexit.”
However, Seamus Nevin, head of policy research at the Institute of Directors, says a system that allocates visas based on the needs of a particular region would make it difficult for migrants to move around the country. Regional visas are more appropriate for large countries such as Canada because migrants are likely to live and work where they land. Such a system would be difficult for the government to enforce in the UK.
“I don’t know whether there is the capacity right now to implement those kind of changes,” Nevin said.
Working with the public
Businesses, and the government, would also benefit from new ways of communicating the benefits of immigration after Brexit.
The Home Affairs Select Committee has said the government could change the “tone and shape” of the immigration debate with a set-piece event in parliament, similar to the Autumn Budget. The Home Office could produce an Annual Migration Report, which would outline the number of migrants entering the UK, and how they are contributing the the public purse. The report would also be an opportunity for the government to outline new immigration policies, with contributions from multiple departments.
Nevin said such a system would show the electorate their concerns are being dealt with. However, businesses will need to become better at promoting what they do to train the domestic population, he added.
And, as ministers draw up a post-Brexit immigration system, business leaders will need to make sure their voices are heard in government, too.