The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) on Friday released a major new report calling for a fresh, business-friendly approach to immigration after Brexit that combines openness with control.
For the report, the CBI surveyed hundreds of business leaders and held extensive consultations with businesses of all sizes in every sector and across all parts of the UK.
The CBI says its report highlights just how important migration is to all parts of the UK economy, at all skills levels. It calls for a post-Brexit immigration system that remains sufficiently open to support the economy, but with enough control to build public trust and confidence.
Notably, the report calls for the dropping of the Government’s “tens of thousands” net migration target, saying the target has driven a narrow debate about the number of immigrants and is a barrier to restoring public confidence in the immigration system. The CBI says an open and honest debate about the costs and benefits of different forms of immigration is needed instead.
Josh Hardie, CBI Deputy Director-General, said: “We hope this report is received as a serious contribution to the debate. In these febrile times, it’s vital that a policy of such importance for the UK’s future living standards can be discussed without ideology or an oversimplification of public attitudes. Many sectors are already facing shortages, from nurses to software engineers – so fast, sustainable, evidence-based action is needed.”
Hardie warned that the stakes couldn’t be higher as freedom of movement from the EU is set to end: “Get it wrong, and the UK risks having too few people to run the NHS, pick fruit or deliver products to stores around the country. This would hurt us all – from the money in our pockets to our access to public services.”
He continued: “This is no longer a theoretical debate – it’s about the future of our nation. False choices and sloganeering must be avoided at all costs. Openness and control must not be presented as opposites. Public attitudes towards migration and the impacts it has on communities are far more nuanced. Scrapping blunt targets, ensuring all who come to the UK contribute and using the immigration dividend to support public services will add to public confidence.”
The CBI outlines the main findings of its report as follows:
• Immigration is valuable to all sectors of the UK economy and delivers significant economic benefit. Almost every credible economic study demonstrates that immigration delivers net benefits for the country. This CBI study suggests that EU workers currently make up between 4% and 30% of the total workforce in different sectors. The contribution of EU workers is profoundly important and will be needed in the future as we build new homes, infrastructure and seize the opportunities presented by the fourth industrial revolution. Putting migration on the table in future trade negotiations will also increase the chance of getting the best deal for the UK.
• Most business sectors require a combination of skill levels and are inter-linked through supply chains, so a whole economy approach is required. The needs are much more complex than only ensuring that the UK can attract the “brightest and best”. In just about every part of the economy a range of skills are required. Housebuilding, for example, requires architects for the initial design, labourers to dig the foundations and electricians to help finish the job. In the food and drink sector, the supply chain starts with agriculture, then logistics and ends with retail.
• Mobility is as important as migration, particularly for the UK economy where services play such a vital role. Being able to move staff easily across Europe, often at short notice, has become an integral part of many firms’ business models. These needs range from the provision of cross-border services, attending short-term meetings and trade shows through to longer-term training requirements. This movement can be both within a company and through posting to external firms, for example within supply chains.
• The current non-EU immigration system is inaccessible for most firms and is not the solution for EU nationals. For those businesses that need access to international labour, many have a strong reliance on EU workers. In part, this is because of geographic proximity. But largely it is because the immigration system for the rest of the world is highly complex, time consuming and expensive, particularly for small businesses. Even as things stand, the current constraints of the non-EU immigration system are harming our economy. So simply applying this, or a similar system to EU citizens would be entirely unworkable.
• Businesses recognise that free movement is coming to an end and want to restore public trust in immigration. Businesses want the UK’s future immigration system to be predictable and uncontentious. A new system needs to feature sufficient controls and mitigate the impacts of immigration in society to build public trust and confidence. This is important to deliver a stable system that gives business the ability to plan with certainty.
In response to the report, a Home Office spokesperson told BBC News that it had no plans to scrap immigration targets and there is “no consent in Britain for uncontrolled immigration.”
“We are considering a range of options that will ensure that we are in control of our borders and managing migration, while continuing to attract and retain people who come here to work and bring significant benefits,” the Home Office spokesperson was quoted as saying.