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The end of free movement and the implications for Wales

January 27th 2021

In January free movement for EU citizens came to an end. Claire Thomas examines the implications for Wales.

End of free movement

For the first time in decades the same immigration rules will be applied to EU and non-EU migrants. EU citizens have played a key role in the Welsh economy, working in sectors such as hospitality and tourism, food production and health and social care. While the focus of EU migration tends to stress the economic impact, EU migrants have made a huge contribution to Welsh communities both culturally and socially.

This change to the immigration system has occurred at a time of massive upheaval in Wales. Coronavirus has created big challenges, unemployment is set to rise and the numbers of job vacancies decrease. Restrictions placed on movement and international travel will also have effected patterns of migration. The pandemic may mask some of the effects from changes to the immigration system in the short-term. However, there are longer-term implications for certain sectors, like social care, which has relied on EU migrants to fill labour shortage, particularly in rural communities. Wales also needs migration to maintain and grow it’s population, especially since Wales has a projected decline in working age population paired with an increase in the population of retirement age.

A move to a points-based immigration for all migrants

Under the new points-based immigration system, anyone coming to the UK for work must now meet a specific set of requirements for which they will score points. The main criteria will be:

  • Employer sponsorship
  • Jobs deemed medium-skilled
  • A minimum salary of £26,500 (although there are some exceptions to this).

These changes will mean it is much tougher for EU migrants to come and live and work in Wales.  Although it will be slightly easier for non-EU migrants to migrate to the UK, many  roles will not be eligible under the skilled worker route. This will have repercussions for certain sectors in Wales which have relied on migrants to fill labour shortages.

How should Wales respond?

We have argued that decisions over who comes to live, work, and study in Wales should be taken by the Welsh Government. While there have been some discussions on regional variations, this has been rejected by the UK government.

The Welsh Government should continue to build a case for regional variations and collate evidence on the long and short-term impact of reduced migration. We suggest adopting a similar approach to Scotland and establish a Migration and Population Expert Advisory Group which can collect evidence on the impact of the new system, and examine how it will affect Wales in the short and long-term.

We advocate a widening of the shortage occupation list, but we also agree with the idea proposed by the IPPR to establish a ‘priority occupation list’ which ‘ fits with government’s social or economic policy, rather than just allowing some flexibility to fill occupational shortages. To ensure the UK Government understands and recognises the important economic and social benefits that migration brings to Wales, the Welsh Government should continue these discussions.

Claire Thomas is a policy and research officer at the Bevan Foundation and leads our work on migration and integration. You can read more about our work on this issue here

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