Number of EU citizens moving to UK plunges post-Brexit – report

Data shows just 43,000 EU citizens received visas for work, family, study or other purposes in 2021

The number of EU citizens moving to the UK has plunged since Brexit closed the doors to low-paid workers, according to a report.

The dramatic decline in migration from the EU has hit hospitality and support services hard. But the Migration Observatory (MO) at the University of Oxford and ReWage, a group of independent experts, have said that while Brexit “exacerbated” chronic labour shortages in Britain, it was not the only cause.

Data shows that just 43,000 EU citizens received visas for work, family, study or other purposes in 2021, a fraction of the 230,000 to 430,000 EU citizens coming to the UK a year in the six years to March 2020, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates.

Of those who migrated – as opposed to travelling for business or pleasure – to the UK in 2021, EU citizens accounted for just 5% of the number of visas issued. “The figures available so far are therefore consistent with the possibility of a large decline in EU immigration,” says the report, titled “The end of free movement and the low-wage labour force in the UK”.

But it cautions against blaming Brexit for the high number of vacancies in the UK, with the pandemic, early retirement among the over-50s, high employment levels across Europe and international labour shortages also contributing factors.

“While there is some evidence that the end of free movement has contributed to shortages in some areas of the UK labour market, it is by no means the only driver. In fact, recruiting difficulties are not unique to the UK and several other countries have experienced high vacancy rates post-pandemic,” said Chris Forde, a professor at Leeds University and co-author of the report for ReWage.

The report found hospitality and lower-skilled sectors were worst hit by the end of free movement of EU citizens into the UK. Hospitality lost 98,000 EU citizens in jobs in the two years to June 2021, and support services including cleaning and maintenance were down 64,000 EU workers.

“While it is clear that ending free movement has made it harder for employers in low-wage industries to recruit staff, changing immigration policy to address shortages brings its own set of challenges,” said Madeleine Sumption, the director of the MO.

The report found some sectors were adapting to the changes in migration but noted that filling low-paid vacancies would remain an issue. Sumption described immigration as a “bit of a blunt instrument”, noting it was “surprisingly difficult to measure shortages and work out how to target immigration policy towards them”.

Home Office statistics show there has been a sharp increase in migration amid the easing of pandemic restrictions. The data shows 277,069 work-related visas were granted in the year ending March 2022 (including dependants), a 129% increase on the year ending March 2021 and a 50% increase on the year ending March 2020.

Analysis of payrolled employees by nationality over a longer period, between July 2014 and June 2021, showed agriculture was also badly hit, losing 28% of EU workers, followed by hospitality at 25% and support services at 14%. The largest decline in EU employment was in London, down 10% overall and down 30% in the hospitality sector alone between June 2019 and June 2021.

In several sectors including construction and health, the numbers of non-EU citizens rose, but the report cautions these may not necessarily be workers arriving on the visa route, and may be coming from the existing non-EU population in the UK who arrived on family visas or the refugee route.

Sumption said many other factors affected supply and demand, including tax, minimum wage, education and training and decisions about shortage occupations lists.

Experimental data being captured by the ONS suggests the highest vacancy rates are in Scotland and London.

The report says there are “competing explanations” for the rise in vacancies, with the decision of people in their 50s to leave the workforce early “the most important contributor to the decrease in the size of the workforce compared to what might have been expected based on pre-pandemic trends”.


Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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