Brexit and the Labour Market (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:46 pm on 8th February 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 1:46 pm, 8th February 2018

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Hollick, for the report. I had intended to say that on many of the issues we appear to have considerable agreement. Then the noble Lord, Lord Reid, spoke and brought in a range of issues on which we may not have quite so much agreement. The Liberal Democrats have not yet changed our minds on identity cards. We have not discussed that issue within the party for several weeks but I do not imagine that there will be any change in our position on that any time soon.

I was intrigued by the fact that when the Labour Party was in power the noble Lord, Lord Reid, had come up with an idea for controlling immigration and had been accused of seeking to adopt a Soviet-style system. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Green, has ever been accused of adopting a Soviet-style approach given that his views may be somewhat similar.

The report contains some key lessons with which I think your Lordships all agree: namely, the fact that the data are not fit for purpose, it is very difficult to know who is actually in this country, we do not know who is working, or whether people are using their national insurance numbers or have claimed a number and perhaps gone back to their home country. That is an issue on which there is clearly some agreement. The Liberal Democrat Benches can certainly agree with two issues in the report: namely, taking students out of the statistics for the purposes of public policy, and getting rid of arbitrary targets.

In opening the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, pointed out that the Brexit vote already seems a long time ago. I declare my interest as an employee of the University of Cambridge. Like other Members of your Lordships’ House, I have always found that Brexit has basically been a job creation scheme for academics, lawyers, perhaps for trade negotiators, and certainly for Members of your Lordships’ House and members of committees in your Lordships’ House and in the other place. They seem to have produced so many reports on Brexit since June 2016, that one begins to wonder where all the evidence and the expertise was to be found before the referendum, and whether some of that work could not have been done before June 2016 rather than now.

I also have a brief secondary declaration in that in the past I have been the beneficiary of the right of free movement of people. In the 1990s I had a scholarship to be in Germany and I went back and forth; I was quite homesick, so I visited the United Kingdom on many occasions. I flew in and out of the country, and nobody asked me what I was doing or whether I was a student or working. It appears that the border agency of the 1990s was no better or worse than the situation we have now. If the Government can come forward with ways to improve the data, that would be enormously welcome.

We have already heard that there is a change in the number of EU citizens resident in the United Kingdom. The net numbers are already falling. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, pointed out, perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. The impact on the labour force is significant and the vote to leave the European Union has created uncertainty in the minds of EU citizens resident in the United Kingdom, some of whom have already taken the decision to leave, others of whom may decide to leave, and many of whom are saying, “We are still not sure that the United Kingdom really wants us”. The interim agreement made in December 2017 does not give the certainty that EU migrants need to ensure that they will remain in the United Kingdom. Therefore we are already seeing a loss of EU migrants. Is that really what we want? Not necessarily.

The report recommends that the Government provide,

“a suitable implementation period during which businesses retain access to the European labour market”.

That would clearly appear to give certainty to businesses, and it has been welcomed across the House. However, what does an implementation period mean? In particular, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and other noble Lords suggested that the implementation period might be for “several years”. So far, we have heard about an implementation period which Theresa May suggested would last two years, and which the EU 27 suggest would be 21 months. If an implementation period as regards access to the European labour market needs to be for several years, can the Minister explain to us how the Government might come forward with a policy on that? Will that be part of the proposed immigration White Paper and the immigration Bill, which we are likely to see later this year, or do the Government object to the idea that an implementation period of multiple years for access to the labour market is desirable?