My Lords, as so many of your Lordships have pointed out, the UK’s future success depends not so much on the withdrawal agreement, but on the outcomes of the negotiations still to come—negotiations based on a political declaration that is not legally binding. The future viability of key businesses and the livelihoods of the people they employ are left hanging on the series of “best endeavours”, “should” and “aims to” that punctuate this short document.
Among those sectors is the creative industries. In my short time in this House I have often stressed the importance of the creative industries to the UK’s success—a sector growing at twice the rate of the wider UK economy and singled out in the industrial strategy, with ambitious targets for jobs and growth. Yet this sector, like so many others, is at risk because its success depends on the ability to recruit and retain key talent from the EU. In the most economically productive areas, domestic skills gaps mean that 30% of staff are recruited from the EU, with 17 creative occupations on the tier 2 shortage occupation list. Even if we started today, we would not be able to train up a domestic workforce to fill those roles by 2021.
Nothing is agreed, as we have been told, until everything is agreed. For many parts of the economy, nothing is yet agreed. The withdrawal agreement covers only the terms of separation, the political declaration is no more than its title claims, and we now know that the all-important White Paper on immigration will not be published any time soon.
To the creative and many other sectors, the future position on immigration is of as much significance in this debate as the documents named in the Motions before us today. The Migration Observatory at Oxford University reports that the UK economy is dependent on between 3.6 million and 3.8 million workers from the EU—roles that we will still require in April and 21 months later. Yet over two-fifths of these workers are employed in lower-paid but vital occupations, for instance, in health and social care—roles that will not meet an anticipated £30,000 salary threshold. Government-commissioned forecasts predict that every year, a further 1.5 million jobs will open up for workers new to the labour market—around 725,000 of them medium and low-skilled jobs.
Where exactly will these workers come from? The Office for National Statistics projects that between 700,000 and 900,000 young people will turn 18 every year between now and 2030. Is our aspiration that every one of them will occupy medium and low-skilled roles? This is hardly the “race to the top” that was promised in the Government’s 2017 plan to improve social mobility through education.
The current tier 1 and tier 2 system has been effective in supplying high-skilled workers from non-EEA countries, but it has worked as part of a migration landscape that provides access to a steady supply of medium and low-skilled workers through our EU membership. A salary-based immigration system will block access to the workforce the UK economy needs and will be severely damaging to our creative industries, which rely not just on established talent but the bright talents of the future, for whom an annual income of £30,000 is the stuff of dreams. Salary levels are not a proxy for skills.
The political declaration says nothing about freelance workers, who make up 15% of the overall workforce and 35% of the creative sector. A freelance visa, as proposed by the Creative Industries Federation, would ensure continued access to skilled, short of exceptional, freelancers who are required on an occasional basis, often at short notice, and provide vital flexibility, especially to small businesses.
Even in the event of an orderly Brexit, there is a real risk that UK employers will not have access to the workforce they need, in either the short or medium term. No deal would “bring down the shutters overnight”, to quote the chief executive of London First. Without assurances that our future immigration system will reflect the economy’s need for a broader range of skills and salaries, the UK’s future prosperity is at risk.
Over the last two years, we have seen an unswerving determination to end freedom of movement on the basis that this is the will of the people. This continues to baffle many of us, not least the Migration Advisory Committee, which has noted that migration flows are now falling sharply and the UK may find itself in the position of ending free movement just as public concern falls about the migration flows that result from it.
The rhetoric is getting in the way of the facts, and it is obscuring an obvious truth: freedom of movement is not just about attracting talent to the UK, important as that is. It is about the rights of future generations to enjoy the freedoms we have all taken for granted—to experience other cultures, to learn and work in diverse communities and places, and to enjoy, as we have, the enriching opportunities of a life lived without borders.
With so much uncertainty, Members in the elected Chamber face not so much a meaningful vote as a terrifying hand of pontoon, gambling, as the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, pointed out, on our futures. Stick with the deal on the table, despite it suiting no one, or twist and see what the next deal brings, but, in doing so, take the risk of leaving without a deal—an option no one believes is in the best interests of the UK.
On the advice of the ECJ’s advocate-general, there is a third choice. I have listened hard to other noble Lords who argue that a further referendum would be a betrayal of democracy. However, it seems to me that the betrayal happened over two years ago, when dubious, if not illegal, practices undermined a democratic process, and the false claims that underpinned the referendum meant that a bright future outside the EU was, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, pointed out, grossly mis-sold. All the evidence shows that pressing on, with or without a deal, will leave us in a worse position than we currently enjoy.
The decision rightly belongs to Members of the other place. Given all this, I believe that they would be justified in choosing that third option. Noble Lords have put forward possible ways in which this might play out, including taking the question back to the public and particularly to the next generation, on whom this decision will have the most impact. It is clear that Parliament now needs to take back control and press pause on the basis that pushing on cannot be the best way to ensure the future success of the UK, or to bring together our divided nation.