Post-EU immigration ‘will be policed in the workplace, not on the border’, experts warn

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Employers are fretful of falling foul of the law without clear guidance for hiring foreign workers post-Brexit, economists yesterday warned at a home affairs select committee hearing.

Dr Heather Rolfe, associate research director for employment and social policy at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, told MPs organisations that were inexperienced in employing workers from outside of the EU were particularly concerned about the changes Brexit could bring to their hiring processes.

“Employers are worried about falling foul of the law, and the reputational damage that could result from [making errors], although they have good intentions to follow good practice,” she said.

“There is less cynicism about the immigration system itself, but they recognise that immigration policy will be policed in the workplace, not on the border… Employers will potentially be faced with a whole array of passports and different entitlements to work in the UK.”

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the Confederation of British Industry, told the committee that EU migration and access to talent was a top priority for employers, and a post-Brexit migration system must focus on “people rather than numbers”.

“There has been a focus on trade and customs in past months, but the reality is that it is people who drive business in the UK,” he said. He added that it was crucial that any new post-Brexit migration system was not an extension of the existing Tier 2 visa system for non-EEA workers.

“We must not have a straight [transfer] of the rest-of-the-world model, but a system that absolutely recognises the need to access a range of skills across the spectrum,” he said. “This model is not fit for purpose for EU migrants, and some of the worst elements are its simplistic nature, which treats people without a degree as ‘unskilled’, and its bureaucracy, which many businesses find hard to grapple with.”

As Tier 2 visa sponsorship certificate applications for skilled workers breached their limit for the fifth consecutive month in April, Rolfe recommended a new system that would allow employers to identify low and high skills shortages across different sectors in a flexible and responsive way.

Certain sectors, including the agricultural and health and social care industries, are already feeling the impact of Brexit in losses among migrant workers.

However, while the majority of employers want clarity on future policies regarding overseas workers, Rolfe suggested that the priority was for the government to secure a longer transition period over a short-term fix.

“Employers are facing a climate of uncertainty generally around the UK’s membership of the EU and trade deals,” she said. “While immigration is very important for them, they would be happy with a longer transition period to get new policies and approaches up and running, rather than an urgency for changing policy now.”

Fell said businesses may suffer a trade-off in short-term labour by taking time to introduce an entirely new system, but agreed that the majority of employers would prefer a longer implementation phase to a rushed process.

“It’s important to have the preparation time for businesses to understand these new systems and how to implement them,” he said. “We need clarity by the end of 2018, so that businesses have a good transitional period to be ready to jump into a new system, whatever that may be.”

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