(Title Image: National Assembly of Wales/External Affairs Committee)
External Affairs Committee
Changes to Freedom of Movement after Brexit (pdf)
Published: 8th November 2019
“We have significant concerns about the implications of Brexit on our workforce in Wales. The ending of freedom of movement will have consequences for business and our economy if we lose vital workers. What’s more worrying is the impact that the loss of EU citizens could have on our NHS. We rely on EU citizens who work as nurses and carers.
“We heard some very concerning and emotional evidence from EU citizens and their families living and working in Wales. We must not forget the human impact that the ending of freedom of movement will have.”
– Committee Chair, David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon)
1. The proposed UK-wide salary threshold for new immigrants after Brexit is set too high for Wales
At the moment, anyone living in the EU or EEA (single market, including Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland) area has a right to live and work in the UK for three months without any conditions, with a right to permanently live in the UK after three months on condition that they’ve found employment or have means to support themselves.
Non-EU and non-EEA citizens need work visas and the number of visas issued each year is capped at 20,700 – except for workers deemed to be “highly-skilled” (including doctors and nurses), who currently aren’t subject to the cap.
After Brexit, current plans will see the cap removed and all skilled workers who miss out on the “highly-skilled” category (Tier 1) – including EU and EEA citizens – will need to earn a minimum of £30,000 a year. The vast majority of EU residents living in Wales (including 53% of EU citizens employed in the NHS) earn below this and the median salary in Wales during 2018 was £21,630.
The £30,000 cap was roundly condemned by pretty much everyone who gave evidence across business, public sector and civil society. Concerns range from potential skills shortages to additional administrative costs for businesses.
The Committee concluded that the Welsh Government should “use all means at its disposal” to get the cap reduced.
2. EU citizens living in Wales still face a great deal of uncertainty
An estimated 80,000 citizens from the EU and EEA live in Wales. With the exception of Irish citizens (due to the Common Travel Area), everyone else will need to apply for settled status if they’ve lived for a minimum of five continuous years in the UK, or are expected to live in the UK for at least five years.
At the end of September, just 41% of EU and EEA residents in Wales (excluding the Irish) had applied. At a focus group, participants told Committee members that they no longer felt welcome in the UK and it’s had an effect on their wellbeing. Having to apply for “status” felt like a downgrading of their rights.
The application process itself received a mixed reception, with concerns raised over the amount of evidence required, the digital-only nature of the application process and delays to receiving confirmation of settled status. The Committee recommended the Welsh Government “takes a stronger lead” in providing advice and support to EU residents and should also reiterate its message of support to EU citizens living in Wales.
3. There’s an argument for Wales-only immigration policy, but it needs more work
King’s College London’s Prof. Jonathan Portes told the Committee that Welsh manufacturing, social care, hospitality, health and education were likely to be most affected by the UK Government’s immigration proposals, but he thought it was difficult to argue for a regional immigration system as migration in Wales wasn’t that different from the rest of the UK.
Wales’ population is expected to start decreasing from 2037 with a decline in the number of working-age people. Without migration, the over-65s are likely to become the largest age group amongst the population with a whole host of public policy, health and social impacts.
Labour shortages could lead to businesses relocating or deciding against investing in Wales, with no evidence suggesting that reduced immigration would result in pay increases for the lowest-paid employees.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Bevan Foundation both said there was a case for a Welsh immigration system based on regional systems in Australia and Canada. This could result in lower thresholds and relaxed restrictions on skilled EU migrants moving specifically to Wales as well as a Wales-only occupation shortage list – though the TUC warned that this could mean migrants losing rights if they moved within the UK.
While the Committee noted the potential challenges, they recommended the Welsh Government undertakes further work on developing a Wales-specific immigration policy, a Welsh list of occupations with labour shortages and demographic monitoring.