In August, the CBI set out its proposed approach to immigration after Brexit in a report entitled Open and Controlled – A New Approach to Immigration after Brexit. Simon Lewis, a partner in the Construction and Engineering team at Womble Bond Dickinson, provides a useful summary of the main findings.
The report published by the CBI (www.cbi.org.uk/insight-and-analysis/open-and-controlled) notes that immigration has delivered significant economic benefit to the UK over the last 50 years but has also given rise to public concern about the pressure it creates on public services and society. Consequently, post-Brexit free movement of people will not continue on the same terms as it has been in the past.
The UK immigration system must, however, remain sufficiently open to support the UK economy but with enough control to rebuild public trust and confidence. As the report states bluntly, the stakes are very high: if the reformed system does not work, the UK risks having too few people to run the health service, pick food crops, deliver products to stores around the country and, in the case of construction, build the houses and the infrastructure that we need.
The main findings of the Open and Controlled – A New Approach to Immigration after Brexit report are as follows:
- Immigration is valuable to all sectors of the UK economy and delivers a significant economic benefit.
- Most business sectors require a combination of skill levels and are inter-linked through supply chains, so a whole economy approach is required.
- Mobility is as important as migration, particularly for the UK economy where services play a vital role. This is about easy movement of staff across Europe, often at short notice, which is an integral part of many firms’ business models.
- The current non-EU immigration system is inaccessible for most firms and is not the solution for EU nationals. The current constraints on the non-EU immigration system are harming the UK economy so simply applying this or a similar system to EU citizens would not work.
- Businesses recognise that free movement is coming to an end and want to restore public trust in immigration.
Consequently, the CBI’s recommendations seek to address these issues. They suggest the following:
- Build public trust in the UK immigration system by shifting away from controlling numbers to assessing contribution and by investing in local public services where demand has been increased by migration.
- Reform the UK’s non-EU immigration system so that firms can better access people and skills from around the world, not just the EU.
- Recognise the strong links between people and trade as the UK forges new economic relationships. This will involve negotiating the simplest possible travel arrangements for all British and European citizens to avoid lengthy border delays at sea and airports after Brexit.
- Replace free movement with a new open and controlled immigration system for EU citizens.
- Ensure that the transition to any new migration system is done with respect for people and in an orderly manner. It will be necessary to legally guarantee the rights of EU citizens already in the UK even in the event of a ‘no-deal’ scenario which, at the time of writing, appears to be increasingly likely.
The construction impact
From the point of view of construction, the migration issue is very significant. Half of London’s construction workforce are not from the UK. Without international labour, the UK cannot build enough new homes and deliver on critical infrastructure projects. This becomes very clear when the goals set out in the National Infrastructure Assessment of July 2018 are considered. This report sets out ambitious infrastructure development programmes vital to the UK’s continuing development and position in the world economy, but very little of this will come to pass if we do not have the skills and labour available.
It is simply not possible for the UK to function without some form of open but controlled immigration system. There is no doubt that however the UK develops after Brexit, it will have to rely upon EU and non-EU workers and freedom of movement across borders in order to continue to function at anything like the level that it has been in the past. Quite how we get there, however, seems at the moment to be as unclear as ever.