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What the immigration white paper means for Wales

June 10th 2019

Ahead of the Counsel General’s statement on the impact of the UK Government’s immigration proposals in the Senedd on Tuesday, Victoria Winckler summarises our view on the effects and suggests some solutions.

EY28WC Flags of Wales United Kingdom and European Union ? EU flag Union Jack and Welsh flag

EU migration to Wales is modest – less than 3% of the Welsh population is born in the EU – but vital.  Wales’ population is ageing and shrinking, and so in-migration is essential for our population to be maintained and grow.  And with no evidence that EU workers ‘take jobs’ or drive down wages, Wales also needs EU workers to do essential work in our hospitals, food factories and delivery services. In-migration and diverse populations are also strongly associated with innovation and prosperity.

The UK Government’s Immigration White Paper proposes to replace almost entirely free movement, EU citizens with the same regime as people from any other part of the world.  This will have a huge impact on Wales despite the small numbers of EU citizens here.

What does the White Paper say?

The new system aims to enable skilled workers to enter the UK, provided that the worker has A level, graduate or post-graduate qualifications and a salary of at least £30,000 a year. The question of a shortage occupation list is under review, along with whether there should be a separate list for Welsh shortage occupations.

There is not proposed to be any entry for unskilled workers, other than a scheme which would operate for a transitional period.  This would allow a people from specified countries a maximum of 12 months employment in the UK.  These workers would not be allowed to bring dependents or access public funds during their period in the UK.

For international students, there will be no cap on numbers and students will be able to stay in the UK for 6 months after gaining a batchelor’s or master’s degree during which time they can seek skilled work and apply to remain in the UK if they successfully meet the skilled worker requirements.

EU citizens wishing to enter the UK for family reasons will need to comply with requirements that are similar to the current non-EU scheme. They will need to demonstrate that they speak English, understand British values and are financially independent.

Implications for the Welsh labour market

Around 79,000 people born in the EU currently work in Wales, with around 18% in high skilled professional and managerial occupations and a further 18% in upper-middle skilled jobs, such as associate professional and skilled trades.  More than half of EU-born workers are in low or low-middle skilled roles.

The Immigration White Paper’s proposals would prevent all but a small proportion of EU migration to Wales. Only people engaged in high-skilled jobs with a salary of over £30,000 a year would be able to enter. Some occupations such as junior doctors (in foundation year one) and qualified nurses (in band 5) have salaries below the £30,000 threshold and so non-UK citizens would not be eligible to work in the Welsh NHS.

International recruitment to all other occupations would almost completely stop, save for an interim period when workers could be employed for a maximum of 12 months. The effects on Wales’ food processing, hotel and catering and distribution sectors, which have relied on a steady stream of EU workers, would be huge.

The temporary worker scheme could cause as many problems as it solves. Workers will have little incentive to integrate with the rest of the workforce or the local community, while employers will be faced with constant turnover of the workforce with its associated costs.

For students, with graduate starting salaries in Wales being £25,000 a year, it is likely that very few international citizens will be able to stay in Wales on completion of their studies.

Last but not least there is the question of the status of EU citizens who already live in Wales. Some but by no means all may be eligible to seek ‘Settled Status’, but any who have lived here less than 5 years, or who have gaps in their employment record, may not.

We can therefore expect that the White Paper proposals will bring:

  • Severe difficulty filling middle and low-skilled jobs, particularly in health, manufacturing, hotels and catering, and distribution industries.
  • Emergence of temporary migrant workers whose integration into Welsh society is likely to be very limited.
  • Some difficulties recruiting and retaining staff to skilled roles, including nurses and doctors in the NHS.

Scope for a Welsh system

The proposed immigration system after Brexit is not a good fit with Wales’ needs or circumstances, nor the profile of EU citizens already living and working here.

The White Paper raises the possibility of ‘regional variations’ in the UK system.  Neither the Home Office nor, if the evidence given to the Assembly’s External Affairs Committee inquiry is anything to go by, leading migration experts seem keen on this option.

Yet in our view, it is vital that the National Assembly for Wales determines who has the right to work and study in Wales. This is not about border checkpoints along Offa’s Dyke, but making sure that a UK immigration policy works as well as it can for Wales.

The Welsh Government should press for:

  1. The ability to define its own ‘permitted occupations’ list. These would include occupations for which there are shortages in Wales, and also jobs which the Welsh Government may wish to encourage to complement its economic strategies. Ideally this would include jobs with salaries below the proposed £30,000 threshold.
  2. Failing a separate shortage occupation list, the Welsh Government should be able to propose a Welsh salary threshold for skilled jobs to reflect the generally lower wages here.
  3. A Welsh student visa, which might offer students a longer period in which to find work in a shortage or skilled role.

These measures should sit alongside a much more robust and pro-active labour market policy, in which the aim is to reduce the requirement for migrants to fill gaps in the labour market, though better training and recruitment to fill shortage roles, better pay and conditions especially for lower-skilled jobs, and a fairer spread of jobs across Wales.

Read more about our report ‘Life After Free Movement‘.



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