+44 (0)20 7799 6677

Immigration, free movement and welfare

Net migration is currently the highest in British history. In 2015, net migration to the UK climbed to a record 336,000, compared to 50,000 per year in the 1990s.[1] Net EU migration accounts for half this total. All EU citizens currently have the right to reside in the UK for three months. After that, they only have the right to reside if they are in work, self-employed, looking for work, a student, or able to support themselves. Family members of an EU citizen with the right to reside in the UK also have the right to reside, including family members who are not themselves EU citizens.[2]

Until 2003 net migration from the EU averaged only 10,000 a year.[3] In 2004 the European Union was enlarged to include eight countries from Eastern Europe and immigration grew rapidly. It was interrupted by the recession in 2008 but grew rapidly again after 2012. In the year ending June 2015 it reached a new record of 180,000.[4]

According to Migration Watch UK, there are just over three million people born in the EU living in the UK.[5] 363,000 first arrived before 1973, the year the UK joined the then European Economic Community. Another 719,000 arrived between 1973 and 1993 while two million have arrived since 2004.[6]

Of the two million immigrants living in the UK who have arrived since 2004, 1.1 million have come from the eight countries of Eastern Europe that joined in that year. About 560,000 have come from the 14 countries of Western Europe, and an estimated 250,000 people born in Romania and Bulgaria and now living in the UK have also arrived since 2004. Over 70,000 arrived in 2014, when those two nations were granted full access to the UK labour market.

The majority of these two million migrants are in work. Of the 1.33 million EU migrants in work who have arrived since 2004, 509,000 (38%) are in occupations regarded as skilled by the Migration Advisory Committee and 822,000 (62%) are in jobs regarded as low-skilled, including 28% who were in ‘elementary occupations’, the lowest category of skilled labour.

Opinion polls consistently show that a clear majority want immigration to be cut. Immigration was named by people questioned by Ipsos Mori in January 2016[7] as the most important issue facing Britain, eight points ahead of the next most important issue, the NHS. The 2014 British Social Attitudes Survey found that 77% of the public wanted immigration to be reduced, 56% by a lot.[8] The majority of first and second generation migrants take a similar view: 60% told the British Social Attitudes survey in 2013 that migration to the UK should be reduced.[9]

The ‘emergency brake’ achieved by Mr Cameron in February 2016 will have only a marginal impact on EU migration. The chief reason migrants come to the UK is not access to benefits, but because work is available and incomes are far higher than in their own country. Research by Migration Watch UK found that 75% of EU migrants are single or childless couples on arrival so are not entitled to in-work benefits such as tax credits.[10] The Office for Budget Responsibility’s Sir Stephen Nickell told BBC News that changes to welfare would have ‘not much’ impact on net migration.[11]

Most of Britain’s population growth results from net migration. It is projected by the Office for National Statistics to reach 70 million by mid-2027.[12] This is based on net annual immigration of 185,000. The current level is 323,000.[13] The contribution of net migration (6.8 million) to the projected population increase of almost ten million over the next 25 years is the equivalent of the combined current populations of Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle upon Tyne, Belfast, Aberdeen, Leicester, Coventry, and Nottingham.[14] Migration Watch estimates that this would mean adding 14 cities the size of Liverpool or Edinburgh.

The economic benefits of high net immigration are marginal and often exaggerated. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee reported in 2008 that they had found no evidence that net migration generates significant economic benefits for the existing UK population.[15] The OECD found, in June 2013, that in most countries the impact of migration tends to be small in terms of GDP per head and is around zero.[16] An extensive survey of the evidence can be found in a study by Cambridge economist Professor Robert Rowthorn.[17]

The economic costs of high net migration are considerable and hit the lowest-paid most. A Bank of England study reported in December 2015 that net migration had driven down pay for catering, hotel and social care workers.[18] The Migration Advisory Committee’s July 2014 report acknowledged that UK school leavers were being overlooked for jobs in favour of migrants.[19] The most thorough appraisal of the overall impact of immigration can be found in Paul Collier’s Exodus.[20]

Free movement rules mean EU migration is effectively uncontrolled. All EU citizens are free to come to the UK to look for work. If migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) have not found work in six months they are supposed to leave, but very few have been required to, including those who have committed crimes. The National Audit Office has acknowledged that sheer inefficiency played a role in the failure to remove at least a third of 1,453 foreign national offenders in 2013/14, but also cites some 17 grounds of appeal that can be used to delay deportation.[21]

What sort of immigration policy would be feasible after British exit?

There are five tiers under the current points-based system. Tier 1 is for ‘high-value migrants’ from outside the EEA and covers entry of entrepreneurs, investors, and the very few people who have ‘exceptional talent’. Tier 2 is for ‘skilled workers’ from outside the EEA with a job offer in the UK. It includes skilled workers who are transferred to the UK by an international company, and skilled workers required when there is a proven shortage in the UK. Many employers and organisations based in the UK, including the NHS, are suffering from skills shortages. Under this new system the UK could increase the amount of tier 2 immigration, for example, by 10,000.Tier 3 was designed for low-skilled workers, but the government has so far not allocated any visas under this scheme. Tier 4 is for students aged over 16 from outside the EEA who wish to study in the UK. Applicants must have a place at a registered UK educational establishment before they can apply. Tier 5 contains six sub-tiers of temporary worker including creative and sporting, charity, religious workers, and the youth mobility scheme, which enables about 55,000 young people (aged 18 to 30) every year to work in the UK on working holidays. The visas are awarded to young people from countries that have reciprocal arrangements with the UK.[22]

There are five tiers under the current points-based system. Migration Watch has suggested some guidelines for a carefully controlled immigration policy. What would such a policy mean for each of the current tiers?[23]

Chapter 42 - table





















[20] Collier, P. (2013) Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press..




Please specify which chapter you are reading and offer feedback using the form below.