migration observatoryShould the UK introduce subnational visas after Brexit, so that immigrants would only be able to work in a particular region? Several advocacy organisations and politicians have mooted the idea. The Migration Observatory looks at the pros and cons of such a scheme. Although the regions of the UK have very different labour needs and levels of population growth, the question of whether should have different immigration policies may well be a matter of principle rather than of costs and benefits.

Immigration policy—that is, the rules that determine who is able to come to the UK to live, work and potentially settle long term—is decided at the national level. But over the past few years, various proposals have emerged for devolving power over parts of immigration policy to the constituent nations and regions of the UK.

These discussions have intensified since the EU referendum. While proposals for a subnational visa system post-Brexit do not only concern EU citizens, the prospect of a large-scale overhaul of UK immigration policy has prompted proposals on broader changes to the whole immigration system for both EU and non-EU citizens.

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A bottle kiln in Dresden, Stoke-on-Trent, where 69.4% of voters chose Leave. Photo: Andrew Bartram via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

Subnational visas are feasible from an operational perspective. Especially if designed to require a job offer and prevent visa holders from working legally in the ‘wrong’ part of the country, the task of enforcing the rules should in principle be similar to a nationally uniform work-permit system.

The question whether they should be introduced is considerably more complicated. The main economic argument in favour of regional variation in the immigration system—that different policies should be responsive to different regions’ true economic needs—sounds intuitive but encounters the strong counterargument that it is simply too difficult to define what migration is ‘needed’ in an objective way at the subnational level. From an economic perspective, it is therefore not clear that significant regional variation would lead to a better match between economic needs and policy design.

There are two prominent examples of countries where significant immigration policy decision-making powers have been devolved: Canada and Australia. These systems have been introduced in addition to the national-level work-permit systems, with the explicit purpose of helping areas of the country with lower levels of immigration to increase population growth by relaxing eligibility criteria for new migrants. In both cases, subnational governments nominate candidates to be given work visas using their own criteria. Subnational discretion is greater in Canada than in Australia, where all candidates must pass a national-level points test.

Many of the arguments for subnational visas are political rather than economic. Here, the key arguments are that devolving at least some of the responsibility for migration policymaking would enable ‘joined-up’ decision-making (e.g. for migration, integration and service provision) and foster a sense of control and accountability closer to home. Whether a subnational visa system would improve public confidence in policy is a complex empirical question that would have to be tested in practice. There would also be challenges, such as the lack of existing political institutions in many parts of England and the fact that under most proposals only a small share of migration would be affected by regional migration policies.

The data show that there are clearly economic and demographic differences among UK regions. Some of the variations are relatively small (for example, earnings levels across UK regions other than London and the South East). Others are relatively large (such as variation in unemployment rates and population growth).

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The question for policy is whether there are potential economic gains from varying policy to take account of these differences. In practice, there are three main obstacles to doing this:

First, there is no optimal amount or type of migration and deciding what is ‘needed’ is a challenge. Some modest, top-down variation in policy by region would be relatively straightforward to design, such as a lower salary threshold for skilled work visas outside of London and the South East. For more significant variations in policy, however, statistical indicators do not automatically produce obvious policy recommendations. The North East has experienced low or negative population growth (which could potentially be addressed with higher migration) but also has high unemployment (suggesting that local jobseekers should be available to fill available jobs).

Second, regions are not homogenous. Population growth, for example, varies substantially within regions. In Scotland, major cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have growing populations while Inverclyde, Dumfries and Galloway, and North Ayrshire have declining populations. Areas of high population growth are sometimes located very close to areas of much lower growth. For example, projected population growth over the next 20 years is 14.9% in Coventry but only 4.8% in nearby Warwick; in the East of England, South Norfolk has projected growth of 12.5% but nearby Great Yarmouth only 4%. If the goal is to match policy to the demographic context, therefore, regional variation may not be ‘enough’.

Finally, regionalising the visa system would increase its complexity, increasing the administrative burden on users. For example, employers with offices in more than one region may find that employees cannot easily move between offices, and would have to become familiar with multiple sets of immigration rules. In areas near the border between two regions, nearby employers would face different requirements – potentially creating winners and losers.

But perhaps analysing the pros and cons of subnational visa systems is missing the point. A poll of Scottish public opinion conducted for the Migration Observatory before the 2014 independence referendum hints at this possibility. A majority of Scottish respondents (60%) said that they would prefer to see the most important decisions about immigration made by the Scottish government, not the UK government—even though a majority (58%) also wanted to see reduced immigration in Scotland and relatively few (22%) believed that an independent Scotland would actually deliver less open migration policies. This implies that respondents did not necessarily favour devolved control over migration purely because they thought it would lead to policy that better matched their preferences.

The level of governance at which policy decisions should be taken is not just a question of assessing the social or economic effects, but depends on broader questions such as how much people identify with a particular level of government and where they intuitively believe that power should lie. In other words, whether different parts of the UK should have different immigration policies may well be a matter of principle rather than of costs and benefits.

This post represents the views of the authors, and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It is an edited extract from the Migration Observatory report, Location, Location, Location: Should different parts of the UK have different immigration policies? Funding for this report came from the UK in a Changing Europe’s Brexit research project which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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