File photo dated 3/10/2014 of a ward in a hospital as a new body set up to help the NHS learn from mistakes will be
© PA

Many of the British voters who opted to leave the EU in last June’s referendum did so because they think immigration is too high and should be reduced. They are likely to get what they wished for, perhaps even before Britain leaves, if the tawdry use of EU citizens living in the country as “bargaining chips” causes them to exit sooner, and others never to come. It is difficult, as a matter of politics, to see any foreseeable UK government not aiming to reduce migrant numbers.

There will be far-reaching consequences. Employers want to hire migrant labour for various reasons. For instance, organisations operating in global markets want the best talent they can find, and employees with relevant experience of those overseas markets. This includes professional services and finance: a law firm with US and European offices needs nationals qualified in the relevant legal systems and cultures. Likewise, the UK’s world-class ballet and opera companies, exporters via sales to tourists and their own tours, want the best dancers, choreographers and singers. The creative sector accounts for an even bigger share of the British economy than finance.

However, prominent among the sectors employing relatively large numbers of migrants are cash-constrained public services. Private-sector employers facing a skills shortage can pay more; it is not so easy in the public sector. Hence education and the National Health Service are big employers of migrants from inside and outside the EU, according to recent reports from the Migration Advisory Committee (of which I am a former member). For instance, nearly 13 per cent of nurses are not UK-born (this does not count Irish nurses, who are archaically included in the “British” category in NHS data).

There is not a general shortage of teachers, but there is in certain subjects and in the three biggest English cities. The non-UK born make up 9 per cent of secondary teachers and 6 per cent of nursery and primary teachers nationwide, with higher proportions in London, Manchester and Birmingham. Much of the bill for social care is also ultimately paid from the public purse, and foreign-born workers make up an even higher proportion of the workforce here — approaching one in five.

Paying low wages for jobs that deserve status and respect is not desirable and the MAC research points out that relative pay and status in nursing and teaching are lower in the UK than in many other countries. If labour shortages develop in these sectors when the supply of foreign-born workers falls, higher wages and better conditions might be a good outcome. But this depends on the government being willing to pay, and tax (or borrow) more to meet the bill. With NHS finances strained, and last year’s junior doctors’ dispute discouraging British entrants to the profession, the timing of a significant cut in non-UK born workers does not look great.

On the other hand, perhaps it will accelerate a necessary public debate about the irreconcilable trends of an ageing population and continuing attempts to reduce government spending on healthcare and pensions. Figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility show the extraordinary share of welfare spending going to the over-65s, and the age bias is similar in health.

Many analyses of the Leave vote have pointed out the positive correlation between the proportion of immigrants in a constituency and the proportion voting Remain. In other words, people voting Leave out of concern about high net migration were the least likely to have many migrants in their area. The average proportions of the migrant shares of the public sector and public finance-dependent workforce were therefore perhaps largely invisible to them. However, the additional Brexit strain on already buckling public services will hit the whole country, Leave and Remain constituencies alike.

The writer is a professor of economics at the University of Manchester

Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article