The economic boost of a Brexit deal involving preferential access to the UK for EU citizens could outweigh the benefits of ending free movement, according to the government’s migration adviser.
The prime minister, Theresa May, has confirmed that people from EU countries will be treated the same as those across the rest of the world when the new immigration system is introduced after Brexit.
But Prof Alan Manning, whose Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) drew up a government-commissioned report recommending the change, said there would only be “modest” benefits from ending the current system.
Appearing at the home affairs committee, Manning was challenged about whether the MAC had looked at alternatives to ending preferential access.
The committee chair, Labour MP Yvette Cooper, said: “Is your view that, if there were substantial trade benefits, that might be a compelling reason to choose a preferential system, subject to all kinds of discussions about what kind of preferential system that might look like?”
Manning replied: “Yes. It might be even that the existing system of free movement is better. I don’t know what is on the trade side.
“There is nothing in this report that should be interpreted to say that any potential gains from going it alone on migration can offset substantial weakening of trade ties with the EU.
“We don’t really know how much weakened those are going to be.”
The government has announced stricter immigration and citizenship rules to come into place after Brexit, including the end to freedom of movement.
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, and the prime minister have announced proposals for a single immigration system that treats people from EU countries the same as those from non-EU countries. Highly skilled workers would be given priority, while low-skilled immigration would be curbed.
The core proposals echoed the recommendations of the MAC report on migration from the European Economic Area.
The home secretary also announced that people seeking British citizenship would face tougher English-language requirements and a beefed-up British values test to replace the Life in the UK test for those looking to settle in the country.