Brexit: Theresa May faces business backlash over 'disastrous' proposals to clamp down on EU workers

Employers in both the public and private sector warned that cutting off access to low-skilled workers would have dire consequences

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Theresa May faces a backlash over proposals to clamp down on low-skilled workers after Brexit which British businesses have labelled as potentially “disastrous”.

The proposals in a government-commissioned report suggest blocking almost all of the workers from coming to the UK, with a new immigration system focused solely on attracting high-skilled staff.

But employers in both the public and private sectors warned that cutting off access to low-skilled workers would have dire consequences for the NHS, social care and the construction, food and hospitality sectors.

It came amid wider unrest in the business community, as British-based carmakers all warned of the dangers of failing to secure an adequate Brexit deal, with BMW confirming it would close its Mini plant for several weeks after Brexit to minimise potential losses from disruption.

The prime minister is expected to use her Conservative Party conference speech in Birmingham in just over two weeks to set out her vision for post-Brexit immigration, with pressure to move away from a system of arbitrary caps growing – including from The Independent, which has been running its Drop the Target campaign for the government to ditch its goal of lowering net migration to the tens of thousands.

On Tuesday, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), whose recommendations will feed into government proposals, suggested there should be no cap on “tier 2” visas for skilled individuals coming from anywhere in the world, including the European Economic Area (EEA) – but routes for low-skilled workers to enter the UK should be all but cut off.

Jane Gratton, head of business at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “From the perspective of businesses facing severe skills gaps, the MAC’s report gives with one hand and takes away with the other, and the recommendations are unlikely to meet the needs of all employers.

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“Any sudden cutoff of EEA skills and labour would be concerning, if not disastrous, for firms across a wide range of regions and sectors.”

Matthew Fell, CBI UK policy director, said the plans outlined for low-skilled workers are “inadequate, and risks damaging labour shortages”.

Any sudden cutoff of EEA skills and labour would be concerning, if not disastrous, for firms across a wide range of regions and sectors

Jane Gratton, British Chambers of Commerce

The MAC report suggested that the only exception to the block on low-skilled staff be for seasonal agricultural workers, and added that if there is to be any legal route for low-skilled workers, it should be aimed solely at young people.

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, criticised the ideas, suggesting they could devastate “tens of thousands of small construction firms” that rely on labourers from the EU.

He added: “The proposal is to apply the tier 2 immigration system to EU workers, which would be disastrous for small and micro construction firms.

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“Even if tweaked and improved slightly, the tier 2 system would not make provision for ample numbers of low-skilled workers to enter the UK, and these are people the construction industry relies upon.

“For the government to make good on its construction and housebuilding targets, it will need sufficient numbers of labourers as well as civil engineers and quantity surveyors.”

The Food and Drink Federation warned that constricting the ability of business to grow and react to employment needs across a range of different skills could “increase the cost of food and drink in the long term”.

Chief executive Ian Wright said: “The proposals in today’s MAC report fail to suggest solutions that would ensure the UK’s food and drink manufacturing industry would continue to have access to EU workers across the full range of skill levels.”

Even more concerning were warnings from NHS Employers, which argued that the proposals could leave the already under-pressure social care sector struggling to find enough staff.

The organisation said any “youth mobility scheme” proposed would “simply not be sufficient for a sector employing over 1.5 million people in England, of which 175,000 care workers are from abroad”.

The body went on: “We have consistently flagged concerns about extending the tier 2 system to EEA nationals, so while we welcome the MAC’s recommendation the tier 2 cap be abolished, without reforming the system beyond this, the NHS and social care will struggle to recruit the staff they need.”

Conversely, the report also sets out to bust a series of myths about the impact of immigration on UK services and resources, finding that EU citizens have little impact on UK workers’ wages, pay more in taxes, have no adverse impact on young Britons’ schooling, are not linked to increasing crime and contribute “much more” to the NHS than they consume.

A Home Office spokeswoman argued that the UK’s new immigration system would work “in the interests of the whole of the UK”.

She added: “The government is clear that EU citizens play an important and positive role in our economy and society and we want that to continue after we leave.

“We will carefully consider the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations before setting out further detail on the UK’s future immigration system.”

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