Author: Quentin Peel
With great fanfare the Confederation of British Industry has produced a report on immigration and freedom of movement for UK and other EU citizens after Brexit. It spells out the vital importance of immigration across all sectors of the economy, and makes a series of welcome recommendations on how to combine openness and control, based on surveys of its members.
Those proposals on overall immigration targets and caps are mainly aimed at the majority of immigrants into the UK labour market who come from non-EU countries. But on EU citizens the CBI, the leading lobby group for UK business, makes a series of recommendations. The curious and revealing thing, however, is that most if not all of them could be implemented without leaving the EU at all.
The CBI proposes, for example, that EU citizens should be required to find a job within three months. That is already permitted under EU freedom of movement rules. In Belgium, for example, if an EU citizen arrives and cannot find work that pays enough to finance housing, health care and other insurance, he or she is sent back home. That is fully compatible with EU law and the so-called four freedoms.
The report also proposes that EU citizens should be registered. That was set in motion by the Labour government in 2010 when the existing EU worker registration system was extended to an identity card system for all workers in the UK.
Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, abolished both the ID cards and the EU worker registration scheme introduced when I was Europe Minister and David Blunkett was Home Secretary.
There was and perhaps still is considerable neuralgia about ID cards, though it is interesting that commentators like David Goodhart of Policy Exchange, and MPs such as Nicholas Soames and Frank Field, are now publicly urging the UK to move to an ID card system.
In reality, registration is all that is required since we all have various forms of ID like drivers’ licences and now mobile phones. One big advantage of ID cards is that they kill at a stroke voter fraud, as in many countries voters have to show an ID card to get their ballot paper. It also makes it much easier to stop the sale of alcohol to under-age children.
The CBI proposes that in-work benefits be changed. That is a UK problem, with a massive taxpayers’ subsidy to low-pay employers. It could be reformed through fair wages, more social partnership and effective workplace inspection, using existing EU laws on agency and posted workers to stop exploitation.
The CBI might have added that EU freedom of movement rules do not apply to state enterprises. But the biggest employer of EU workers in the UK is the NHS, because we do not train enough doctors and nurses. Once again, the remedy lies in UK government, not EU hands.
In short what the CBI is proposing as a post-Brexit system is the norm in most EU member states. It is strange that we have to leave Europe to achieve labour market regulation that is standard practice in most other European countries. The silence of most trade unions on this vital aspect of Brexit, well as of the think tanks who opine endlessly on other questions is quite baffling.