Last month the Migration Advisory Committee published a long-awaited report for life after Brexit in which it called for an end to special access granted to EU citizens but Edward Goodwyn of Pinsent Masons argues there is little within the committee's findings to suggest that low-skilled migration is detrimental to the UK's economy.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) was commissioned by the government in July 2017 to advise on the economic and social impacts of the UK's exit from the EU and also on how the UK's immigration system should be aligned with a modern industrial strategy.
The report envisages that from the end of 2020, European Economic Area (EEA) and non-EEA immigration would be managed under the same set of immigration rules - although of course such a transition period is dependent on a no hard Brexit in March 2019.
It recommends that the Tier 2 cap on current skilled migrants should be abolished and that the Resident Labour Market Test should either be removed or reduced in scope, which would have pleased many employers.
However, the MAC does not recommend the introduction of any sector-specific work-related schemes for lower-skilled workers, with the possible exception of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme. It also suggests that those in low-skilled roles will need to be paid £30,000 a year as well as their employer having to pay full immigration fees, including the Immigration Skills Charge. Should the government choose to introduce a low-skilled immigration route, the report advises that this should instead be based on an extended youth mobility scheme.
It is fair to say that the report has not been particularly well received within the construction industry. The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has announced that the series of recommendations set out in the MAC report would cripple the construction industry and that they have ignored the pleas of construction employers who have called on the government to introduce a visa system based on key occupations rather than arbitrary skill levels.
The committee announced that immigration for higher-skilled workers should be less restrictive than for lower-skilled workers and that this 'aligns with the government's industrial strategy'. This however appears to be in contrast to the government's commitment to invest in construction and infrastructure. In the last autumn budget for instance, the government pledged to support more housing, and expand the National Productivity Investment Fund by £2.3bn to upgrade the UK's infrastructure.
It's also important to note that there doesn't seem to be anything in terms of evidence within the MAC report to support such a change in immigration policy from an economic perspective. There is nothing to suggest that low-skilled migration is detrimental to the UK's economy.
With 14% of construction workers in the UK from the EU and in London this increasing to one third, these workers have played a very significant role in mitigating the severe skills shortages the industry has experienced in recent years.
The construction industry is aware that it needs to do more to recruit and train domestic workers. Until a time where apprenticeship schemes are able to provide local available skills, many in the sector are calling on the immigration route to supply the short fall in the immediate term. However this will take time and in the interim, migrant workers have, and will continue to play an important part - it is essential that the post-Brexit immigration system allows the industry to thrive.
Until now, the information that has been provided to employers in relation to what will happen after the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 has frustratingly been extremely limited. This recent development will not necessarily help.
What is important for employers to be aware of is that under the current proposals, any EU nationals who arrive up until the end of December 2020 will be able to register for “settled status” – which means they can stay living and working in the UK regardless of Brexit. As a result of this, we may start seeing some firms increasing their recruitment drives before this period.
Edward Goodwyn is an employment partner at the international law firm Pinsent Masons.