A Tale of Two Citizens

What “taking back control” really means: 

Many moons ago, the Finnish branch of the IT firm I recently retired from hired a Frenchman. He was able to move there without any formalities or fuss accompanied by his wife (who also found work there) and his two small children. No visas, no forms to fill in, no permissions required from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels (or Helsinki), and no negative implications for the family’s pensions or benefit status or healthcare.

He just went there, rented somewhere to live, worked happily at his job. There were some cultural hurdles: “You ‘ave to sheck[i] them sometimes …. or give them a drink” he once explained to me when speaking of his dealings with his rather taciturn Finnish colleagues. He also accidently set fire to his sauna – and wrote a song about it: “The Burning Sauna Blues” (he is, in addition to being a professional IT specialist, an amateur musician).

Though the Finnish fire brigade managed to get his sauna-fire under control, nobody there ever tried to control him.

After a few years of Finnish winters, he and his family elected to return to France where he set up a highly successful French branch of the firm.


Like Finland, the modest UK branch of my firm has not always found it easy to recruit the expertise we required at home. We work in a rather niche area and IT skills tend to be in high demand everywhere. Even before Brexit, we had never successfully recruited from the rest of Europe – where people with the skills we required could usually find higher salaries and better weather than in the UK.

We did, however, once manage to recruit somebody originally from India who had studied in the UK and had actually specialized in our rather arcane area of work. He worked with us happily and successfully for many years too – until he finally moved on to bigger and better things.

But it wasn’t easy, and it took a long time for us to take him on.

First of all, we (and he) had to complete (and then maintain) a great deal of paperwork with the Home Office – whose permission we needed to employ him and keep employing him. Then we had to pay several thousand pounds to the UK Government every year as a penalty for employing one of those dastardly foreigners instead of a homegrown Brit – even after we had had to demonstrate that we needed his skills and could not currently find them among UK applicants.

Best of all, about a year after we first took him on, we had a visit from the Home Office. They sent two members of their staff about 250 miles by plane [sic], to a rather obscure regional airport, and then 50 miles by taxi to our office (instead of a two and a half hour train journey and a five minute taxi ride). The two HO operatives then proceeded to grill our CEO and then our recent recruit – preventing either from getting much work done that afternoon – by way of establishing that the latter really was working for us.

They asked our CEO where our recruit sat; what he did; who his line manager was etc, and whether he (our CEO) envisaged wanting to employ any more foreigners? Did he know, they asked, how many days our Indian employee was allowed to go AWOL before this had to be reported to the Home Office?

They were perfectly civil by all accounts (my colleagues kept me well away from them in case I said something untoward) but they demanded the names, addresses, national insurance numbers and birth-dates of all the other employees of the UK firm, and demanded these be emailed to them – with no encryption or other safeguards.

We double-checked they were who they said they were before doing this. We began to get worried at one stage that we were becoming the victims of an elaborate scam.

The costs and the efforts involved in all this were quite extraordinary and I could not help feeling that the theatre we were subjected to had less to do with checking up on our lone Indian worker and more to do with issuing a kind of veiled threat. The unspoken sub-text seemed to be: "I'd think twice about employing any more foreigners if I were you!".

And it worked. Our CEO told me he would almost certainly not put himself through all the hassle we had had employing this one chap again - even though we were very pleased with him and (as reported) are short of suitably qualified applicants.

Our two friends then returned by the same curious, and expensive, route.

As far as I know, our former (Indian) colleague is still in the UK under sufferance of the Home Office. One day he may return to India, but he would find it extremely difficult if he did, and then wanted to come back to the UK; and if he ever wished to bring a spouse or other family members to the UK, he his troubles hitherto would seem akin to buying a bus ticket.


I relate these two stories not in relation to any arguments about what I think the UK’s general immigration policies ought to be (that is a debate for another day) but simply in order to illustrate what the ending of free movement for Brits in Europe and other Europeans (apart from Irish people) in the UK[ii] means for UK firms who are trying to recruit. While the supply of labour from the rest of Europe has fallen off a cliff[iii] (they have plenty of other choices), the supply from the rest of the world (especially Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, and India) has grown by leaps and bounds[iv].

Now I appreciate the argument that somebody from Norway or Italy should be treated “just the same” as somebody from Nigeria or India, but this argument fails to acknowledge that what we had with Norway and Italy (and the rest of Europe) was akin to what we still have with Ireland: agreements on reciprocal freedom of movement between the UK and the country concerned. The “treating people the same” argument also fails to acknowledge that we now treat foreigners from any country apart from Ireland extremely badly. Any UK firm that does manage to continue to recruit other Europeans will henceforth pay a huge price in additional red tape, loss of flexibility, and Home-Office hostility.

I do not see how any of this gives UK firms “more control”.

[i] Shake (in a French accent). 
[ii] Other Europeans still have free movement in the whole of the rest of Europe, and Europeans such as my wife who were here at the time of Brexit (and for 30 years previously) still have (partial) free moment in the whole of Europe including the UK.

edited 2022-05-24: para 3 added; link to Burning Sauna Blues added; "famously" changed to "accidently" 

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