British business leaders need to stop lecturing people about the economic benefits of immigration and start putting forward positive proposals for the UK economy after Brexit, a new report has warned.
Business groups representing hospitality, construction, finance and many more have been vocal about impending skills shortages if the flow of migrants slows significantly after Brexit.
Too often, the key weapon in their armoury has been statistical evidence of these shortages, which are used in an attempt to convince people they are wrong to worry about immigration, the report said.
This tactic comes across as a lecture which contradicts many peoples’ actual experiences, “leading to mutual misunderstanding and a dialogue of the deaf,” the report from think tank British Future and leading global immigration law firm Fragomen, said.
As Theresa May prepares to trigger Article 50 on Wednesday, the think tank recommended that business groups shift focus towards acknowledging the pressures that immigration can bring and focusing on ways to effectively manage them.
Companies should also highlight where they have pursued positive solutions such as engaging hard-to-reach British groups, investing more in the skills of indigenous workers and increasing productivity through automation.
Ian Robinson, a partner at Fragomen, and co-author of the report, said: “The trick will be for business to be up-front and celebrate any initiatives that help British workers.”
He cited the example of Virgin Trains' efforts to employ ex-offenders and said companies can do more to embrace flexible working for people such as mothers returning to work after maternity leave.
“If they work perfectly and no vacancies go unfilled then brilliant, business is sorted. If not, as seems likely, you can start to talk about immigration from a position of strength,” he said.
Mr Robinson, who also worked for several years in immigration policy at the Home Office, told The Independent that businesses should reassure people about the strength of the current work visa system.
Businesses that employ non-EU skilled workers have to keep close oversight of them, he said. This includes telling the Home Office if workers arrive in the country later than planned, where they live, if they move office, if they return home early and where they go on holiday. There are also heavy penalties for companies that breach the system.
Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future said the debate needed to outline how people can feel like they have more of a say in immigration policy.
This could be achieved with a migration equivalent of the annual Budget during which the Home Secretary would explain what happened last year, what is planned next year and what choices have to be made in light of the country’s skills needs, Mr Katwala suggested.
He told The Independent: “There’s no doubt at all that business voices - like the voices of other pro-immigration people - are landing with those that already agree but are just missing out the conversation that other people are trying to have.”
This is true of moderate voters as well as “those people that will never want to listen because their plan is to shut the borders”, he said.
Most people are open to hearing concerns about the need for nurses, care workers, low-skilled and high-skilled labour, he said, but many feel business isn’t interested in having a conversation about how to manage immigration better so that it works for the economy and society.
He added: “It’s very much felt like a debate that says, if you think there’s a problem, we’ll explain why there isn’t a problem and then hopefully you’ll agree with us.
“That approach has failed and will now bring diminishing returns if it’s continued in future.”
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