The UK government is promising to clamp down on immigration flows after Brexit to prioritise the best and brightest minds. But it’s fighting a battle against businesses, which are warning that the current system isn’t fit for purpose in the post-Brexit world and could lead to worker shortages in crucial sectors.
A whopping 64% of all workers in the UK wouldn’t qualify to stay in the country based on current immigration rules for foreign workers, according to new research from PwC and the business lobby group London First. The government requires that immigrant workers on the so-called Tier 2 visa must have a salary of at least £30,000; a threshold that the majority of UK workers simply couldn’t meet.
Workers from the European Union and a handful of other countries including Norway and Switzerland currently do not face any restrictions on working in Britain.
London First and PwC are urging the government to be aware of business realities as it moves to overhaul the immigration system.
“With … 42% of all foreign workers in the UK currently engaged in medium-skilled jobs, applying the same Tier 2 rules in a new system would be manifestly damaging to our economic prospects and a range of sectors – from higher education to construction to hospitality,” said PwC’s global head of immigration, Julia Onslow-Cole, and London First’s chief executive, Jasmine Whitbread, in a written statement.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has also urged a swift overhaul of the current visa and immigration system as the UK leaves the EU and plans to close off the free entry of European workers.
“Businesses of all sizes and sectors need access to people across all skill levels to be successful…Concrete proposals for reforming the Tier 2 visa system are one of many aspects business will be looking for…alongside routes for people earning less than £30,000,” said Matthew Fell, the CBI’s chief UK policy director.
UK home secretary Sajid Javid has promised he will soon issue a White Paper outlining the government’s post-Brexit immigration plans and priorities. But he told the BBC’s Today Programme earlier this week that the White Paper won’t be ready in time for the Brexit vote in parliament on Tuesday.
“This is the biggest change in our immigration system in over four decades,” he told the BBC. “[We] are able to design a system that brings down net migration overall to a more sustainable level but still meets the demands of British industry.”
Prime minister Theresa May, who previously led the government’s immigration policies as home secretary, had built her reputation on a promise to bring down immigration levels to “the tens of thousands.” But she wasn’t able to deliver.
Migration has remained fairly stable since peaking in 2016, with roughly 270,000 more people coming to the UK than leaving in the 12-month period up to June 2018, according to the latest report from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Employers are warning the government that any new immigration policies must be introduced in a slow, methodical manner to give companies ample time to adjust.
“It would be irresponsible for the government to bring the shutters down overnight, especially to those in important lower-wage roles such as care workers, or to others performing vital services to the public but who are earning less than £30,000 a year, such as nurses,” Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers and co-convenor of the Cavendish Coalition, said in a written statement.
In the UK, where unemployment is at its lowest level in decades at around 4%, unfilled job vacancies have spiked to their highest level since modern record-keeping began at the ONS in 2001. Roughly 845,000 jobs are going unfilled, with the greatest demand for workers coming from the hospitality, food, auto and health care industries.
Mortimer notes that England has more than 40,000 nurse vacancies and nearly 80,000 care worker vacancies.
READ MORE: What is a ‘no-deal’ Brexit?