18 May 2017

The Conservative Party promises to cut net migration. While Brexit gives government greater control of numbers, Joe Owen argues that any change is unlikely to happen much before the next election in 2022.

The Conservative manifesto recommits the party to cutting migration. While Brexit means the UK can ‘take back control of its borders’, those who see 29 March 2019 as the date it all changes are going to be disappointed. Our recent research shows that any change is unlikely to happen until well into the next Parliament.

Unrealistic targets

Any party that wants to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ will need to overhaul the entire immigration system. The latest net migration figure was 273,000, with only half of these coming from the EU under free movement. The other half came from outside the EU, through a visa system designed and run entirely by the Home Office, with migrants meeting criteria such as salary requirements or qualifying for exemptions by working in key ‘shortage’ professions (currently includes nurses and paramedics).

Implementing an immigration system that is capable to deliver the 100,000 net migration target may be more realistic post-Brexit than it was in 2010, but it’s still a big challenge. Aside from the highly political nature of the decision and the possible impacts to the economy, the administrative task of making such a change happen is huge.

The last change to immigration rules took almost five years from design to delivery and brought together largely pre-existing features of the non-EU migration system. Ending free movement and redesigning the whole immigration system represents a different scale of challenge.

We have been promised legislation on post-Brexit immigration. There will need to be consultation with key industries on the details of a new system and engagement with those employers, landlords and public services whom government rely on to enforce its immigration rules. Any detailed design for post-Brexit immigration is unlikely to be agreed, let alone legislated for, by the end of this calendar year.

“Phased implementation”

Those who see this as the Brexit process being hindered by sluggish processes should recognise that implementation of a new system is not just a job for government. Farmers, law firms, the NHS, coffee shops, industries and employers of all shapes and sizes, will need to adapt. Whether it’s adjusting to a new labour market, or new processes for sponsoring workers, a huge number of organisations will be affected.

When government put Automatic Pension Enrolment in place, it gave businesses around five years to adapt. It was two years for the Apprenticeship Levy. Timelines for implementing a new immigration regime are not just about how quickly the Home Office can make the change, but also how long it will take for a small business without a dedicated HR or government affairs department to prepare for the change.

A new immigration system for EU nationals is only possible once the rights and status of those already living in the UK have been secured. What was originally billed as an obvious reciprocal arrangement, which could be put in place quickly before formal negotiations began, is starting to emerge as a series of complex questions around acquired rights and entitlements. But even once these questions are settled, there is a significant administrative challenge in providing the correct documentation to an estimated 3 million EU nationals. An agreement is one thing, but until individuals have the relevant paperwork they risk being unable to prove their entitlement to public services, jobs and housing.

The current process for documentation is not fit for purpose, as David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, confirms. Despite a huge surge in activity at the Home Office, the process is functioning at a fraction of the volume required. Issuing the necessary documentation will require a 550% increase in decision rates, and based on 2014 data, it could require up to 5,000 additional civil servants. The manifesto doesn't address this issue.

While the political imperative for change in immigration is significant, so is the bureaucratic task of implementing such a change. Free movement will need to continue for some time post-Brexit.

If a new government is serious about reaching a 100,000 target, it should recognise the scale of change required to make it a reality.

This blog was originally published 9 May and updated after the Conservative manifesto launch.


It seems to me that the focus on securing the rights and status of EU citizens already here as quickly as possible is starting in the wrong place.

It is not clear what rights and status the EU citizens are being secured. Is it the same rights and status (and qualifying residence periods) of non-EU migrants; UK citizens; or, as the EU Commission seems to suggest, a set of EU rights and statuses that they determine and which would presumably be different from those of either non-EU or EU residents.

Having decided what rights and statuses resident EU citizens have, it would then be possible to work through who can get these rights. As most elements of rights and status are associated with work and access to public services – benefits, health, social housing, education etc. – it would make sense to base the source of eligibility to rights and status on the National Insurance Number.

If, for example, it is decided that the residency rules for EU citizens are the same for non-EU citizens – where the key principle is a four-year residency period where there is no access to public funds – then a simple way of judging whether the EU citizen is resident would be if their NI no (perhaps in conjunction with the electoral roll?) has been active for 4 or more years. Using this system could also, if the NINOs were made ‘smart’, the system could provide the basis for establishing what rights and status of new migrants – including those already resident here for less than four years.

It could also be extended to non-EU migrants and essentially help to establish a social insurance system for new migrants who are resident here (e.g. to work) but do not have the full-blown access to the Beveridgean residence based rights and status. In that it could be similar to travel insurance (and perhaps, therefore, be more expensive than UK NICs) and would be used to pay for private health, education etc. Or, if they use public services, such as health or education and provide a basis for recouping the cost.

Such a ‘smart’ NINO system would also make it easier for employers and landlords to fulfil their legal requirements not to deal with illegal immigrants. Currently, although issued by the state, the NINO system cannot be used by employers and landlords to check whether they can do a deal.

I think you are mixing two issues. Surely they will be two classes of EU27ers in UK and Brits in EU27. Those who arrived before Brexit day and those who arrive after. The former will be subject to the negotiations under Article 50. It is clear that the EU Council (heads of government) and European Parliament will seek to keep the status quo of their rights as now. In the same way the UK Government should be seeking to ensure the same rights British citizens currently enjoy in EU27. Note that it is the European Council (and to a lesser but important extent European Parliament) which is setting the policies not the Commission, their role is to negotiate not set the policies. So a register of the 3 million is needed rapidly. In EU27 countries require a more professional registration system and excluding those Brits who try to live under the legal radar in Spain etc, the Brits will already be registered.

After Brexit day then the new UK migration system comes into play. EU27ers wishing to move to the UK will know they are moving to a third country with all that entails. The same will apply to Brits seeking to move to EU27. The logic is they can stay for 3 months but beyond that, to work, retire and study the EU27 will either as a bloc or individually have its own inward migration policy. Barnier gave a good example of a British student wishing to study in Italy for four months.

Hi Steve,

I think it's slightly more complicated than those two groups. I count a few more, and have included them below with some of the big questions they face. Often this issue of 'EU27ers' in UK and British citizens in the EU is painted as a bit of a 'no-brainer' for government and the EU. But there are still some complicated issues.

At the top level you're right, there are two broad groups:

1. EU 27ers who live in the UK under free movement, have done so for 5+ years, and are legally entitled to residency regardless of Brexit. This group is fairly simple, it's just a case of paperwork (even if the process for getting the paperwork is far from perfect).

2. EU 27ers who live in the UK under free movement, but do not qualify for permanent residence under existing rules e.g. they've been here for less than five years. It's this group that face most uncertainty over rights and status.

'Securing the rights and status' of this second group is not as simple as it has been painted. Even if you set aside the detail of exactly what rights mean - EU citizen rights or UK citizen rights, family rights etc., there will need to be both a 'cut off' date and a qualifying period. The cut off date could be Brexit day, meaning those who arrived before can apply. But what about those who arrived the day before - are they now entitled to permanent residence?

This is where the qualifying period comes in. So an example would be, you need to have lived in the UK for, say, two years by Brexit day to be eligible. A decision on cut-off and qualifying period is likely to throw up three more groups:

1. Those who are eligible and can apply for residence (but still a question of what 'residence' means now on rights/entitlements to public services, and also the far from perfect system mentioned above)

2. Those who are not eligible for residence OR a new migration regime. What does government do here? Are they asked to leave? Deported? Does government relax rules given the circumstances?

3. Those who are not eligible for residence but qualify for the new migration regime. The questions here are based on when a new system will be in place (it won't be by Brexit day). For example, what happens after Brexit day but before the new system is in place ? What entitlements do they have to get a job, house, access public services etc?

Does anyone know what was behind this 'tens of thousands' limit?

It was announced long before Brexit, but given the requirement for free movement as a condition of EU membership, surely that limit was always incompatible with EU membership? Was it a conspiracy to get us out before we realised what was going on, or was it just a govenment that didn't realise what it was doing?