EU migration to the UK has dropped to its lowest level in 10 years according to newly released figures, prompting calls for employers to “take immediate action” to retain European talent.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), net EU migration plummeted to just 57,000 in the year to September 2018, the lowest annual level since 2009. The total for the year to September 2017 was 90,000. Total immigration to the UK for work, whether from EU or non-EU countries, also dropped to its lowest point since 2014.
Jay Lindop, lead statistician and director of the Centre for International Migration at the ONS, said decisions to migrate were always complex and influenced by a range of factors, including work, study and family reasons. But she said different patterns for EU and non-EU migrants had emerged since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016.
“Due to increasing numbers arriving for work and study, non-EU net migration is now at the highest level since 2004. In contrast, EU net migration, while still adding to the population as a whole, has fallen. We are also now seeing more ‘EU8’ citizens – those from central and eastern European countries, for example Poland – leaving the UK than arriving,” she said.
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"A familiar pattern is starting to emerge in the quarterly migration statistics,” said Jonathan Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD. “Given the important role that EU citizens play in key sectors of the economy, the figures highlight the need for the post-Brexit immigration system for EU nationals to be as low cost and user-friendly as possible for both employers and individuals.”
Boys called on the government to listen carefully to employers over the proposals in the immigration white paper, to ensure businesses are able “to continue to access the skilled and unskilled workers they need from the EU post-Brexit”.
Managing director of Migrate UK Jonathan Beech said the figures provided real evidence that the “unprecedented uncertainty” and possible delay surrounding Brexit was having a significant impact on the rate at which talent was leaving the UK.
“We’ve seen a six-fold increase in employees asking us for advice. They’re confused. International workers are worrying for themselves and their family members. UK employers, not knowing what the future looks like, are struggling to plan, with some companies under enormous pressure from investors to consider relocating outside the EU,” he said.
But, Beech added, employers were in a position to “take immediate action to help retain European talent”.
He suggested employers identify gaps in their current and future workforce and highlight whether they have the means to remain in the UK in the future. Employers with genuine skilled vacancies should consider applying for a sponsor licence so they have access to a wider pool of talent.
Figures released in January by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) showed businesses across all sectors were facing significant and increasing difficulties in recruitment as the UK became a less attractive destination for workers. Phil Coulter, EMEA market lead for technology at Korn Ferry, told People Management: “With all the changes taking place around us, the time is now for talent acquisition professionals and business leaders to adopt a more strategic approach to the future and current workforce.”
On Wednesday, an amendment tabled by conservative MP Alberto Costa in an attempt to protect EU citizens’ rights in the event of a no-deal Brexit was given the green light. The ‘Costa Amendment’ called for prime minister Theresa May to seek a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt the part of the withdrawal agreement covering citizens’ rights “whatever the outcome of negotiations”.
However, the amendment suffered a blow yesterday when the EU declared it “would not negotiate mini-deals”.
A spokesperson for the European Commission told reporters in Brussels that the best way to protect the rights of EU workers was through the withdrawal agreement.
They added: “We will not negotiate mini-deals because negotiating such a mini-deal outside the withdrawal agreement would imply that the negotiations have failed. But what I can tell you more generally on citizens’ rights is that the Commission has consistently made clear that the rights of EU citizens in the United Kingdom and UK nationals in the EU are our top priority.
“They should not pay the price for Brexit, and the Commission has called on member states to take a generous process to UK nationals that are already in their territory.”
Earlier this week, the Employment Lawyers’ Association (ELA) warned Brexit was likely to lead to weaker workers’ rights in the UK.
Paul McFarlane, chair of the ELA’s Legislative and Policy Committee, said: “Our employment law is rooted in the EU and a divergence is likely to lead to weaker workers’ rights in the UK.
“Brexit is likely to cause one of the biggest upsets to UK employment law and this is a worry for all, but for workers in particular. It is very concerning what might happen post-29 March.”