EU citizens still welcome but there’s more red tape for businesses

A fudge on free movement could lead to businesses giving Brits priority for jobs. It could also lead to them investing elsewhere instead.

Could the government be drawing up plans to allow EU citizens to travel and live in the UK visa-free? The Times reports that when the Home Office publishes more details on its post-Brexit immigration plan in the Autumn, EU (and EEA) citizens can continue to arrive and live in the UK. They will also be able to apply for jobs without obtaining a work visa. However, as the newspaper reports, businesses wanting to hire EU citizens will need to apply for a sponsorship permit. If true, this suggests the government favours fewer restrictions on migrants from the EU as non-EU citizens need to apply for a relevant visa to live in the UK. Up until now, it was uncertain whether the government wanted to treat EU citizens differently to non-EU citizens post-Brexit.

The plans also suggest an increased burden for businesses. For them, it means more paperwork, take more time and likely increase the costs of hiring. Currently, businesses need to apply for a sponsorship licence if they want to employ a non-EU worker. This costs either £536 or £1476 depending on the size of the company and is valid for four years. The company would then have to pay a certificate fee for each non-EU employee they hire. The cost of which is either £21 or £199 depending on the type of worker (skilled temporary worker or skilled worker on a long-term job offer). And for skilled workers with a long-term job offer, a company may have to pay an immigration skills charge on top. Again, depending on the size of the company, this is either £364 or £1000 for each year the worker is sponsored. The cost of this could well be doubled within the next parliament as the Tories promised to double the cost of the immigration skills charge in their election manifesto. Could employers have to meet similar costs for recruiting EU workers post-Brexit? It’s still unclear.

As The Times notes, introducing a fee would be a way to encourage companies to give Britons priority in hiring. But another potential consequence is that businesses decide to invest elsewhere in the EU where they not only have full access to the single market but also have easy access to a wider pool of workers at no additional expense.

But what about ‘taking back control’?

Being able to ‘take back control of our borders’ was a key argument being advocated by Brexit supporters. But these plans suggest there will not be further controls on EU citizens at Britain’s borders. The government’s position paper on the Irish border also suggest this is the government’s intention. The paper said border controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland was not required because other control mechanisms such as those “controlling access to the labour market and social security” would suffice.

Irish border: UK suggests no further immigration border controls required

The plans as revealed by The Times certainly indicate this could be extended to the whole of the UK. The government would, however, have ‘control’ over the number of permits issued for each sector. Recently, the government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to report on the economic and social impact of EEA workers on the UK labour market. A consultation on this is currently ongoing and this could help shape the government’s plans in terms of how many permits each sector is necessary. But the government may well need to show some flexibility in having limits on the number of permits available. Figures released yesterday show unemployment in the UK is at its lowest rate since 1975 and businesses are already saying they are struggling to recruit.

A big question that will need to be answered is what rights EU citizens will have post-Brexit. This includes access to healthcare and benefits as well as how much tuition fees EU citizens will be charged or their ability to set up a business in the UK. The status and rights of EU citizens will be a significant negotiating point for the EU when it comes to agreeing a new trade deal especially if the UK hopes to have something similar to single market participation.

So far, the government has said EU citizens post-Brexit (at least during a grace period) will still be able to come to the UK without restrictions but have to register. This is actually already something that EU member states can require under free movement. The EU’s free movement framework also allows member states to impose restrictions on stays longer than three months but the UK has chosen not to enforce these. The EU directive on free movement states that whilst people working don’t need to meet any other conditions to stay beyond three months, those who aren’t working “must have sufficient resources for themselves and their family, so as not to be a burden on the host country’s social assistance system, and have comprehensive sickness insurance cover”.

Immigration control within freedom of movement – can we already do more?

If the reported plans are correct, they aren’t that far off from what is already available as an EU member. As with the government’s proposals for new customs arrangements, the UK’s goals seems to be about recreating what we already have. But not only will this be more expensive and more bureaucratic to implement, we also won’t have all the benefits we currently have as an EU member.

The government may hope that this fudge on free movement will encourage the EU to give us similar access to the single market that member states have. It may also hope this fudge will show the British public we are ‘taking back control’. But it remains to be seen whether the EU or British public will be convinced.

This post was updated on 18 August to correct current sponsorship fees for employers recruiting non-EU workers.

Image: © 1000 Words /
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