The report suggests it is possible that more eastern Europeans have left the UK than arrived
The report suggests it is possible that more eastern Europeans have left the UK than arrived © FT Montage/Dreamstime

The number of eastern Europeans registering to work in the UK has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade, with immigrants deterred by the weak pound and uncertainty of Brexit.

Researchers at the Oxford Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found that the number of people applying to work in Britain from the eight countries which joined the EU in 2004 — including Poland, Latvia and Lithuania —— has declined sharply since the Brexit referendum.

Registrations for national insurance numbers fell to around 26,000 in the first quarter of 2017, compared with just under 40,000 in the same period last year.

This is the lowest level of first quarter registrations by so-called A8 nationals since their governments formally joined the EU, and is a fraction of the 2007 peak, in which more than 111,000 east Europeans applied for documentation to work in Britain. A national insurance number does not mean someone can automatically claim benefits or get a job, but it does mean that when someone has a legal entitlement to work they will pay tax.

The findings echo official migration data published last month, which showed a fall in immigration and rise in emigration among the A8, contributing to net migration among this group of just 5,000, the lowest since 2004.

In a report titled “Brexodus? Migration and uncertainty after the EU referendum”, the researchers note that since the official data have a margin of error of 14,000, it is possible that more eastern European nationals may have left than arrived.

Overall, there are about 2.3m EU citizens working in the UK, who account for about 7 per cent of the workforce. They span both ends of the labour market: 23 per cent are in “elementary occupations” while 17 per cent are in “professional occupations”. Research suggests that A8 migrants are particularly prevalent in sectors such as administration, business and management, hospitality and catering, agriculture, and manufacturing.

Carlos Vargas-Silva, acting director of the Migration Observatory, said he is seeing indications that the UK has become “less of an attractive destination” for migrants from Poland and the other A8 countries since the referendum.

“Aside from the economic factors, other things, such as the lack of clarity about their long-term legal status, and highly publicised xenophobic attacks, may also have affected EU citizens’ choice to come to the UK, or to remain here,” he said.

Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, said that levels of immigration are a “vote of confidence in a country and its economy”.

“When access to workers is already a major concern for IoD members, seeing these sort of statistics can only heighten their worries about the implications of Brexit for finding the staff they need,” he said.

“While businesses accept that change is coming, including to the immigration system, a sharp fall in the number of people available to employ comes with a real economic cost.”

Barbara Roche, a former immigration minister and now chair of the Migration Matters Trust, added that the Migration Observatory report chimed closely with what she had been hearing from businesses across the country.

“The danger is that this [exodus] will lead to a loss of skills in key sectors of the economy such as construction and hospitality. This also has a knock-on effect on British jobs,” she said. “The government could have avoided this if ministers had said straight away — as they were encouraged to — that they would guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in this country.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that we will remain an open and tolerant country, and one that recognises the valuable contribution that migrants make to our society. We have been clear that securing the status of EU citizens resident in the UK is an early priority for the negotiations.”

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