Matt Southall discusses concerns over the extent and speed of migration post Brexit

Make no mistake about it, the impact Brexit is already having on immigration figures is a real issue for employers up and down the country. The number of people moving to the country is dropping. This can be attributed to uncertainty surrounding their future if they were to move here, the strength of the Euro against the Pound making other Western European countries more appealing, and a general feeling of unease given perceived anti-immigration feeling within the country as a whole.

And following leaked government plans for curbing post-Brexit immigration, I am not sure we are any closer to resolving this complex and serious situation.

Of course, they are just draft plans at this stage but the nature of the more ‘selective’ approach to immigration the plans provide detail on, suggests that permits for most workers would last only two years and places much tighter restrictions on family members moving here. The proposals emphasise that skilled workers will still be able to move to Britain but with such tight restrictions on whether their families can join them, will they actually want to?

The government’s hope is apparently that by limiting immigration in this way, businesses will be forced to prioritise roles for British workers. However, the draft plan has the potential to do huge damage to the British economy and the security of jobs for everyone.

As it stands we have had 2.2 million EU nationals working in the UK; seven percent of the work force. Many of them are in what the government would classify as ‘low-skilled’ roles, but some industries are utterly reliant on them. Tourism and hospitality couldn’t function without their foreign workers, 75 percent of waiters in the UK at the moment are from the EU and they need up to 60,000 new staff a year. How would we replace them? There simply aren’t enough British job-seekers to fill the gaps.

Business organisations have been quick to speak out criticising these proposals and I’m sure that the likes of the Recruitment & Employment confederation, IoD, the Chamber of Commerce, FSB and the CBI will continue to lobby the government to take a more measured approach when their final plans are made. Indeed, we are hosting a debate on this very matter with the CBI at Acorn’s HQ in Newport this coming Friday – I’ve no doubt that the contributions from the business leaders attending will only emphasise the concern already being shown by employers across a range of sectors and professions.

Spokespeople have already come forward from many industries to highlight the skills gaps in their own sectors and their concerns. Take the haulage industry for example, we currently have a severe shortage of drivers and this is only likely to get worse if ‘low-skilled’ workers are prevented from coming here – this will have a direct knock-on effect on other industries as a result.

"We have had 2.2 million EU nationals working in the UK"

We are also facing shortages for roles like nurses, electricians and chefs, which we already struggle to fill. Will they be deemed ‘skilled’ enough that they will be exempt from the suggested restrictions?

The Welsh Government’s White Paper launched last week will help the debate; it sets out their priorities for ensuring Wales’ future prosperity after we exit the EU. Unsurprisingly it puts the economic wellbeing of Wales at the heart of its approach, and it makes some salient points.

Carwyn Jones recognises that people ‘have concerns over the extent and speed of migration’ and subsequently, there needs to be more control over this, but he advocates a managed approach whereby people can come over if they have a job, or a real prospect of finding work quickly. Hopefully, this approach means that Wales would still benefit from immigration while addressing the concerns that led us to a vote for Brexit in the first place.

The Welsh Government also highlights that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to UK migration won’t work and advocates for a spatially-differentiated approach. This will be crucial for the success of any policy because as we have often seen, what works for London and the South East, doesn’t necessarily work for other regions.

The crux of the problem is this: domestic talent can’t fix the labour shortages we’re facing. If the country is to thrive post-Brexit, we need to make sure that we have access to the people our businesses, industries and public services need; whether they are astrophysicists, coders, nurses, drivers, tradespeople or waiters, everyone has a significant part to play.

And therefore, it is absolutely essential that all governments in the UK fully take their steer on immigration policy direct from employers – perhaps in the form of a designation employers’ group; independently run, and formally tasked (without interference) with setting and reviewing priorities for the attraction of skills and the conditions we must apply to capture and retain them.

Our approach to immigration mustn’t be a political exercise devised behind closed doors, it must not be enforced and communicated through some crafty tactical communications and spin; and it must have flexibility built in to deal with changing demand and to respond to global competition – the employers are at the sharp end of this and therefore must be in a position to directly lead on it.

If we don’t attract and maintain the skills we need to keep businesses thriving, or frankly, just to for them to survive and keep going, then productivity levels in our economy will fall further still, businesses and industries will close, and those permanently-employed, ‘British’ workers who are reliant on these employers will be out of work – compromising the very lifeblood of our economy and the public services we all rely on so much.

I don’t believe that this is what anyone voted for.

Matt Southall is Group Managing Director of Wales’ leading multi-specialist recruiter, Acorn

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