Freedom of movement will stop in March 2019 when the UK formally leaves the European Union (EU), Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis has confirmed.

Lewis said the government is clear that “free movement of labour ends when we leave the European Union in the spring of 2019.” He repeated that the government would aim to reduce net immigration to “sustainable levels.” Talking to the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Lewis said that "Obviously, there's a period of negotiation we're going through with the European Union at the moment. But we're very clear that free movement ends. It's part of the four key principles of the European Union. When we leave, it ends." 

MAC survey

In the meantime, the government has commissioned today an independent survey on the role of EU migration in the UK economy which will be released in September 2018, six months before Brexit. Home Secretary Amber Rudd requested the report from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to examine the impact of Brexit on the UK labour market and ways to align the UK’s immigration system with a modern industrial strategy. The MAC chair Professor Alan Manning, in a letter to the Home Secretary, welcomed the opportunity and said that the MAC “are keen to work with stakeholders to explore the issues encompassed by this commission and will shortly produce a call for evidence setting out how stakeholders can get involved.” He added that the MAC will attempt to produce “interim responses to the government.”

The MAC survey will examine which sectors are the most dependent on EU labour, which are the benefits and costs of EU migration to the economy, the impact of reduced EU migration and ways to ameliorate the effects of reduced migration. 

The government has been criticised for commissioning the report a year too late, since businesses are worried about the future. The CBI said that companies needed to know how the labour landscape would look like after March 2019. The CBI found the report a “sensible step” but added that "Workers from across Europe strengthen our businesses and help our public services run more smoothly - any new migration system should protect these benefits while restoring public confidence."

Foreign workers prepare to leave the UK, various surveys show

More than a million foreign workers will leave Britain, according to a survey released in June by accountancy firm Deloitte. The survey found that 36% of non-British workers living in the UK are considering leaving by 2022, and 26% are planning to move by 2020. This means that around 1.2m jobs out of 3.4m migrant workers in the UK will be at stake. EU nationals will probably be the first ones thinking of leaving and the survey hinted that employers will find it difficult to fill the gap left by skilled migrant workers. However, despite Brexit uncertainty, 89% of non-British workers said that the UK remains an attractive destination for work. 

Another survey by law firm Baker McKenzie, that surveyed 250 EU citizens, showed that the majority of skilled EU workers at the biggest UK companies will most likely leave the UK before Brexit with 56% saying that they were “highly likely” or “quite likely” to leave the UK before Brexit happens. 42% of skilled workers said that they had already tried to change their immigration status and another 40% confirmed they were intending to do so in the future. More importantly, after the Brexit vote, 70% of EU workers admitted that they felt exposed to discrimination with 38% saying they felt “vulnerable” or “very vulnerable.” A Nursing and Midwifery Council survey showed that 96% less EU nurses have registered to work in the UK after the Brexit vote, highlighting the important risks to the NHS. 

More confusion

Despite evidence that cutting immigration will hurt businesses and affect EU nationals’ lives and jobs, today’s comments by Brandon Lewis are definitely alarming since they will force businesses to adjust and make plans in the next two years before the end of the free movement of labour.

Lewis’ comments have made things more confusing since there are now different views coming out from the government. Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary said that the cabinet was determined to have a transition period after Brexit without ending free movement abruptly, while Amber Rudd, in an article in the Financial Times suggested that the government had adopted a softer attitude towards free movement. She wrote: "Put simply, the UK must remain a hub for international talent," and promised that there would be no "cliff-edge" for EU nationals or businesses. She continued: "We must keep attracting the brightest and best migrants from around the world. And we must implement a new immigration system after we leave the EU that gives us control and works in all of our interests."

Even in her letter today, requesting from the MAC the report on migration, she said the government does “not envisage moving to that future system in a single step when we leave the EU.”

However, Lewis’ remarks might be a simple reminder of the government’s position to reduce net immigration to a less than 100,000 people a year, while specific arrangements are put in place during a period of transition. The general and accepted view of the government is that a Brexit transition deal of up to four years will be in place, securing the freedom of movement. 

Labour’s Pat McFadden tweeted that the government was in “shambles” and that Lewis “also contradicts every other Minister who has tried to reassure people there will be no cliff edge in 2019.” He also mocked the situation by saying that “Yesterday, it was a row about chicken. Now it’s immigration. Ministers are contradicting one another by the hour. The country needs good leadership during this crucial period. It is certainly not getting it.”

On the contrary, others in the government exhibited signs of aloofness, while celebrating immigration and demanding its control, all at the same time and in one sentence. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, speaking in Sydney, said he was unaware of the report commissioned by Rudd but reminded us that immigration has been “fantastic for the energy and dynamism of the economy" but "that doesn't mean that you can't control it." At the moment, as Diane Abbot said, “There is far too much heat and not enough light about immigration, so any truly objective and well-informed analysis must be welcome."