Britain should not offer preferential access to European Union workers over those from outside the bloc after Brexit, a government-commissioned report said on Tuesday (18).
The independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said decisions on who could work in Britain once it abolishes free movement with the EU should focus on attracting highly skilled people.
Prime minister Theresa May has indicated she is open to such an idea, with reports suggesting an announcement could come at her Conservative party’s conference this month.
However, it could cause problems in Brexit negotiations with the EU. Britain’s hopes for a close trading relationship with the bloc are likely to be linked to demands for preferential access for EU workers in the UK.
The committee said that if immigration was not part of the Brexit talks, “we recommend moving to a system in which all migration is managed with no preferential access to EU citizens”.
Future policy “should favour high-skilled workers, as there is clear evidence they bring benefits to the UK’s public finances, innovation and productivity”.
The committee recommended removing a cap on the number of non-EU high-skilled workers allowed in each year and expanding it to include more skills.
By contrast, it concluded there is no need for a specific route for low-skilled workers to come to Britain, with the exception of seasonal agricultural labour.
It conceded this could hit sectors that have grown quickly in recent years on the back of cheap labour, such as food production.
The government commissioned the re-port last year to inform its future policy on immigration, a key issue with voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and is expected to publish plans later this year.
In an interview with the BBC broadcast late on Monday (17), May suggested she wanted to give EU and non-EU workers the same rights to work in Britain.
“The message from the British people is very simple, it was they don’t want a situa-tion where they could see people coming from the EU having… automatic rights in terms of coming here to the UK and a set of rules for people from outside the EU,” she said.
But London mayor Sadiq Khan warned the report was a “missed opportunity” to protect jobs.
“British businesses will pay a heavy price if the government fails to protect their access to a European workforce at all skill levels in the future,” he said.
Around 226,000 EU citizens came to Britain in the year ending March 2018, with 138,000 leaving, official figures show. Non-EU immigration stood at 316,000, with around 81,000 leaving. The Home Office said on Tuesday that the government wanted EU citizens to continue to play a positive role in Britain.
“We will carefully consider the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations before setting out further detail on the UK’s future immigration system,” a spokeswoman for the Home Office said.
“EU citizens play an important and positive role in our economy and society and we want that to continue after we leave.”