On 11th November 2020, the UK government’s Immigration and Social Security Co-Ordination (EU Withdrawal Bill) more commonly referred to as the ‘Immigration Bill’ received Royal Assent turning the bill into an official act of parliament. This bill does what Priti Patel was boasting about all year, i.e. that it officially ends the free movement of people between the EU and the UK and will be effective as of the end of 2020.
Background to Free Movement:
Free movement is a fundamental element of the EU ensuring that citizens are able to live, work and travel to any other EU country. This visaless way of movement presents a myriad of opportunities for EU citizens allowing a level of flexibility and freedom unparalleled throughout the world. However, some in the UK argued that by accepting free movement this forced the UK into accepting too many migrants from across from the EU. This argument ultimately became a core element of the Brexit campaign with those in favour arguing that post-Brexit the UK could gain back control of her borders and stop migrants from freely entering. Therefore, it is pretty unsurprising that when Johnson did in his words ‘get Brexit done’ one of the top priorities was passing legislation that changed how the UK immigration system operates and that is where the Immigration Bill comes in. Johnson said on 11th November 2020 in the House of Commons that ‘the landmark Immigration Bill receives Royal Assent thanks to this House fulfilling of our manifesto commitment to end free movement and have a new fair points-based immigration system’.
Contents of the new Immigration Bill and what it changes:
The first thing this bill does is officially change free movement between the EU and the UK, now requiring Europeans hoping to live and work in the UK to be subject to UK immigration controls. Europeans already living in the UK have had the opportunity to remain through the EU Settlement Scheme but Europeans hoping to live and work in the UK in the future will be subject to the new system. These changes do not apply to Irish citizens. This is because the government says that UK and Irish citizens have enjoyed a unique status in each other’s state since 1920 (before the EU was even founded) and therefore both sides should continue reciprocal access even after Brexit. This means that even after the UK leaves the EU at the end of the year, Irish citizens will not require permission to enter or remain in the UK.
With regards to the controls that Europeans hoping to live and work in the UK in the future will be subject to, unfortunately, even though the Immigration Bill has been passed, these immigration controls have not been finalised yet and they are not part of this Immigration Bill. The government wants to introduce a new “points-based system” but in the government’s own words the Immigration Bill does not set out the details of the future immigration system with the government’s own website simply referring us to the policy statement that they published in February 2020. Please enter the link below to access the policy statement:
Ultimately not much progress has been made and the end of the transition period is nearly upon us. The policy statement covers the government’s plans for a points-based system. Considering that in November 2020, the government is still referring us back to this old document, this means that not much has changed since its publication in February 2020 besides the fact that the government has slashed the minimum salary requirements in order for applicants to settle in the UK. In October it was found that these plans had changed reducing the minimum salary requirement to £20,480. It is worth noting that the previous figure of £35,800 was introduced by Teresa May in 2011 when she was Home Secretary in an attempt to limit migration. So, this new system actually reduces the minimum salary potentially in reaction to demonstrate the country’s need for lower paid migrants in Britain post-Brexit. The UK’s points-based system is expected to be rolled out at the beginning of December 2020 but crucially it is not included in this legislation. However, that did not stop Priti Patel in the government’s announcement video of the Immigration bill, stating ‘our British points-based system will bring in firm controls, fair controls, but most importantly will mean that we have taken back control of our immigration policy’. A points-based system that one month before the end of the transition period we are still not privy to!
Free movement in Europe:
However, Europe’s free movement does not end. The other 30 member states will continue to have free movement. They have only lost access to one country. Whereas Brits have lost access to all 30! Some will argue that this will allow Britain to take back control but for others it represents a major loss of freedom and opportunity in Europe. Brits looking for continued access to Europe could always apply for a visa and will still have the right to travel to Europe for holidays. The new visa system for travel and holidays is set to make trips pretty easy after Brexit but actually trying to live and work in Europe post-Brexit is said to be substantially harder than it currently is. This could potentially make European employers less likely to offer employment to Brits.
Some see this as a major loss, a stolen opportunity to live and work outside of the UK. Others see it as Britain taking greater control of her borders, which to them is a price worth paying. Britain did already have more control over her borders pre-Brexit than many seem to believe. That is because under the 2006 Free Movement Directive, Britain had the power to control the entry of EU migrants. The directive states: ‘where admission is permitted, an EU citizen may remain in the UK for up to 3 months from the date of entry, provided that they do not become a burden on the social assistance system of the UK. If an EU citizen does not meet one of the requirements for residence set out in the directive, then they will not have the right to reside in the UK and may be removed’. Britain now has more powers than it did before, but it is worth noting that the UK was not previously completely powerless. The EU directive is used by countries like Belgium and Italy to send thousands of EU migrants back to their country of origin.
Economic analysis from the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) suggests that tightening the grip on migration may not actually be the best idea. MAC has stated that immigrants contribute more to the public purse on average than native born Brits do. Newer migrants in fact are the most lucrative for the British economy. The average migrant from the EU contributed £2,370 more to the Treasury than a native-born Brit. Even if you do support Britain getting more control over migration, no one can deny that completely cutting or limiting migration is in the country’s best interest.
Is this a positive step and an example of the Conservatives fulfilling their manifesto promises or is it a sad day representing the rights of Brits being stripped away?