Positive indications for employers on post-Brexit immigration

With one year to go until the UK officially leaves the European Union, the past week has arguably seen the most progress so far at the Brexit negotiation table. Additionally, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has freshly published its interim findings on the design of a post-Brexit immigration policy, which taken together, mean broadly positive news for HR and employers, though there remains some continuing concerns.

Free movement and indefinite stay during transitional period

The two most significant developments arising from the negotiations are first, the agreement to retain free movement for all EU nationals during a ‘transitional period’ from March 2019 to December 2020; and second, the confirmation that EU citizens arriving in the UK during this period will be able to stay indefinitely.

Thus, the cliff-edge scenario that would see migration restrictions imposed from day one has seemingly been avoided. What’s more, EU nationals arriving after March 2019 will be able to apply for settled status once they have lived in the UK for five years. This policy may be a shot in the arm to the slower rate of growth in EU nationals that have come to the UK to live and work since the referendum. 

However, employers and EU citizens should hold off from popping champagne corks just yet. In the first instance, the transitional deal has not quite been signed and sealed, mainly due to the Irish border question. Home Office officials, despite this potential stumbling block, were at pains to underline their commitment to these policies at the most recent employers’ forum on immigration policy, of which the CIPD is a member.

Another reason for tempering the mood is that the 21-month transitional period (also called ‘implementation period’) falls short of the two years sought by the UK government and the three years recommended by the CIPD. This means employers have less time to adapt to any new immigration rules than may be ideal.

To offset any sudden impact, employers would do well to introduce or review their workforce planning strategies now to ensure they will continue to have the resources they need, whatever immigration scenario ensues post-Brexit.

Migration Advisory Committee announces interim report

Meanwhile, the MAC has hit headlines with its interim report on how the UK’s immigration system should look following the end of the implementation period in 2021. Drawing strongly on CIPD evidence, the report acknowledged the differing skill requirements of employers and why they fill vacancies with migrant workers — namely because they are the best or sometimes only candidates, especially in some low or unskilled roles.

The MAC has also judged that some employers’ claims about skill shortages and their inability to improve the supply of UK workers through higher wages were exaggerated, particularly in those same sectors. As noted by the MAC, this is consistent with CIPD research which showed that while some are adopting best practice to find home-grown applicants, others are falling short and merely seeking the path of least resistance.

The MAC will conduct further impact studies before drawing conclusions in its final report, though the indications are that the need for a low or unskilled migration route for EU nationals has been acknowledged, as is some form of migration restriction.

The CIPD will continue to advise the MAC’s thinking on the issues particularly over the merit of a labour shortage occupation list. Such an arrangement would force employers to show that they are making efforts to improve the supply of UK workers while demonstrating that the occupations they are recruiting for has a genuine labour or skill shortage. This more selective approach to controlling low or unskilled migration from the EU could potentially act as a catalyst for improving HR practice and enable most organisations to meet their labour and skills needs.

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