Britain’s immigration policy can go one of two ways once it leaves the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May could design a system that reduces net migration from its current level of 330,000 people a year by admitting only the most productive workers. Or she could take an axe to the numbers without any care or concern for the economic consequences. Policies unveiled at the annual Conservative Party conference suggest the latter approach.
In a speech on Oct. 5, May reiterated that restrictions on freedom of movement would be at the heart of talks to leave the European Union. Her interior minister, Amber Rudd, has floated policies apparently aimed at restricting the entry of skilled non-European workers, including the idea of making companies disclose the proportion of foreign workers they hire.
Britain already imposes quotas on overseas workers and students, the two groups that account for most of the 4.6 million non-EU migrants living in the country. Moreover, visa rules have become stricter in recent years, much to the irritation of global firms. Their annoyance can be explained by the persistent shortage of suitable candidates in fields like accountancy, engineering, IT, construction, and medical care, according to the Recruitment & Employment Confederation.
But a new clampdown would also be felt by the wider economy. The chair of a migration committee that advises Rudd’s department said in June that productivity, public finances and the employment prospects of local labour are all improved by skilled economic migrants. Fear of such workers is hardly what Britain needs when productivity, measured by output per hour, is still about 17 percent below what it would have been had pre-downturn trends been maintained.
A better policy would be to take existing curbs on non-EU unskilled workers and apply them to Europeans too. Those measures are more economically defendable: the Migration Advisory Committee has argued that the current free-for-all can negatively impact the wages of low-skilled British workers. Ideally, the number of skilled migrants could then rise.
The trouble is that unveiling anything like this would show May’s hand to the rest of the EU, with whom she will soon negotiate. So instead Britain risks going for policies that might spread wealth a bit more evenly among its citizens, but mean there’s relatively less to go around in the first place.