Why EU workers make a hugely significant contribution to the UK - Beckie Hart of CBI

Beckie Hart of the CBI
Beckie Hart of the CBI
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This time next year we’ll potentially be just weeks away from the biggest change to UK immigration in nearly 30 years

Much of today’s analysis of the quarterly immigration statistics – which over the years have been the source of much rancour – will focus on numbers and not much else. Therein lies the problem.

Workers from overseas, particularly the EU, make a hugely significant contribution to the UK, both socially and economically. It’s important for our public finances, and our public services, that this continues.

Notwithstanding recent signs of labour market softening, skills and labour shortages already exist in every sector of our economy, despite many employers increasing spending on training.

And it’s not just about workers. The UK’s higher education system is rightly admired worldwide, highly sought after by international and EU students who make an invaluable contribution.

Therefore, it’s high time there was a greater focus on constructing a new immigration system that meets the needs of our economy while building public confidence. One that matches openness with control.

For business, allowing firms to access the people and skills they need is as important as forging our future trading relationship with the EU.

Yet alarmingly for companies across the UK, scant details exist about how this might work in practice. Any new system must avoid a return to arbitrary targets, which have caused so much loss of trust in the past.

Getting it right – first time – is crucial and cannot be rushed. Here are a few suggestions for the next government to ponder as the General Election enters its final furlong.

Firstly, focusing only on the ‘brightest and best’ misses the point. While it’s true our economy needs highly skilled scientists to help drive innovation, we need the laboratory technicians too.

Furthermore, all parties have rightly made commitments to increase housing supply. Achieving this requires the combined skills of a range of professions and trades, from architects to labourers.

And when it comes to trade, mobility is as important to services as customs are to goods. Ensuring the new immigration system supports the UK’s world-leading services sector that makes up 80 per cent of our economy should be uppermost in policymakers’ minds.

Let’s consider just one example from the UK’s fastest growing sector – creative industries. Actors and film crews need to move quickly and easily between Europe and the UK to shoot on sets in multiple locations. If this mobility was restricted, it would negatively impact UK-based studios.

Secondly, to retain public confidence any new system must have the right checks and balances. We know some areas of the UK have a greater concentration of workers from overseas compared with others, which can result in pressure on public services.

While all the evidence shows there is a national economic benefit from immigration, local areas experiencing rising populations should receive more funding to ensure immigration benefits their community too.

Thirdly, and perhaps most vitally of all, get it right so it works for firms of all sizes across the UK on day one. Tweaks to the existing non-EU visa system without wholesale reform would be rash, restricting growth when the country needs it most. Finalising a single system that works for all UK nations and regions is far more important than rushing for political expediency.

Beckie Hart, regional director for Yorkshire and Humber at the CBI