The UK’s future migration regime must ensure continued access to the skills needed for economic success and public good – and not focus on erecting barriers to free movement.
Although the union welcomed the government’s decision to remove the cap on tier 2 applications, it believes the UK will lose more EU workers than it attracts after Brexit.
This is confirmed by the government’s own analysis in the White Paper which estimates a loss of 200,000-400,000 workers over five years, at a cost of 0.4-0.9% of GDP.
Prolonged uncertainty has already reduced the attractiveness of the UK as a research destination. Government’s stated willingness to explore mobility arrangements for research and training purposes is welcome, but far too late.
Free movement is important because it underpins large scale projects and collaborations, including climate and space science. 130,000 EEA nationals from outside the UK work in UK science, technology, engineering and maths – almost 10% of the scientific workforce.
Specialist capability in some areas is already very low and universities are already warning of challenges in recruiting post-graduate researchers from the EU27. There is no alternative workforce waiting in the wings to replace them.
Why the government has got it wrong
The government says it wants a highly-skilled and innovative workforce. But the White Paper will actually create new barriers for such workers because it wrongly equates skills and salary.
It proposes salary thresholds that will rule out significant groups from coming to the UK. The Migration Advisory Committee recommended a salary threshold of £30,000 – which is higher than the UK median salary of £28,677.
Scientific success depends on teams with a diversity of roles including technicians, students and support staff who often undertake highly specialised, but not highly paid, work.
According to Universities UK, 63% of EEA nationals working as technicians at UK universities earn less than £30,000. In vital areas such as biosciences and clinical medicine, EEA nationals account for more than one quarter of the technical workforce.
The White Paper also incorrectly equates academic qualification and skill level. Essential technical and specialist skills developed through experience may not be formally accredited.
For example, many highly-skilled jobs in film, TV, theatre and events have no recognised qualifications or licences to practice. The Home Office has long had separate guidance for the industry but it is unclear whether this will be incorporated into the new system.
The requirement for employer sponsorship of highly skilled workers will rule out freelance workers, such as those working on high-end graphics for film and TV.
Prospect's briefing outlines other problems with the White Paper including:
- evidence that the digital application process, by Android phone, is unsuitable for applicants with complex family circumstances
- the emphasis on individual permission to stay may unfairly discriminate against spouses and other family members not in paid employment
- it does not provide sufficient security for long-term projects
- the time-limited route for temporary short-term workers will give employers significant power over individuals, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation
- more onerous application of rules on permitted paid engagements is likely to deter short-term business travel to and from the UK
- the focus on different rules for ‘low risk’ countries could result in decisions based on political and trade issues, rather than skills and innovation
- it continues an unreasonable ‘policing’ role for private individuals, such as employers and landlords.
Prospect wants to see:
- a system that allows reputable employers in well-regulated sectors to make and document employment decisions through their established HR practices
- enhanced monitoring and enforcement to ensure that these arrangements are not abused
- migration processes that are as streamlined and accessible as possible
- a system that is not based on an earnings threshold, but takes account of wider economic impact
- consistent messages to actively attract workers from the EU27 and EEA and make it easy for them and their families to settle in the UK
- reciprocal arrangements for UK nationals seeking employment elsewhere in the EEA.