The government is expected to announce its post-Brexit migration policy in the summer. But one idea doing the rounds – a quota system for work visas – needs shooting down now.

The most detailed version of this idea emerged in the Sunday Times on 26 March. The paper talked of “plans advocated by senior ministers” to see “multi-year visas handed to migrants who get jobs in key sectors of the economy”.

The report went into further detail, claiming the government would “hand fresh powers to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to decide how many visas need to be issued each year for workers in key industries such as software engineering, health and social care, farming and hospitality, which are heavily reliant on immigrants.”

The government has written off the reports as speculation, with Home Secretary Amber Rudd telling ITV’s Robert Peston that ministers were still looking at “a range of options”. This offers hope that quotas won’t be the eventual solution.

Quite apart from a dramatic shift in the role of the MAC, from independent advice to political judgement, any attempt to plan migration by industry would gum up the economy. Even pro-May Tory grandee William Hague has warned there would “inevitably be shortages of staff in some areas” if the government tried to judge supply and demand for labour in every sector.

The main problem is a reliance on bureaucracy over free market economics. Centrally planned policies simply don’t respond as quickly to sudden demand, for example an unexpected bumper harvest, as a truly free labour market of 500 million people can. Then there are the details, like choosing which employers within each sector get the visas. Any bureaucracy is bound to get some of these decisions wrong, with either too many or too few skilled workers brought in.

Limiting migration to those sectors deemed most needy would also risk starving new growth areas of talent, with innovative young enterprises failing to get off the ground or moving abroad to find skills.

Additional red tape, coupled with a nagging sense of being unwelcome in the UK, would also likely deter skilled migrants who could more easily employ their talents in 27 other countries. Arch-Brexiter Daniel Hannan has argued that we could “make it easier for skilled non-EU nationals to get work permits in key industries”. But any post-Brexit process would be more onerous than the current free movement.

Hannan also assumes skilled Europeans will still want to migrate to Britain in the same numbers. We have already seen an uptick in EU workers emigrating since the referendum, and two separate surveys by the British Medical Association and General Medical Council have shown thousands of EU-trained doctors considering leaving due to Brexit.

“We said we would use the opportunity of leaving the European Union to take control of our immigration system and we will do exactly that,” a government spokesperson told InFacts. But if the government pursues control over migration for its own sake, and controls too tightly, it will find holes and missed opportunities appearing right across the economy.

by Luke Lythgoe | 06.03.2017

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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