Post-Brexit immigration policy is becoming clearer following Theresa May's announcements at the Tory party conference, and in a way that will concern many in the construction industry.
The Government has reaffirmed its target of reducing overall migration, with a focus on restricting the inflow of low-skilled workers. The emerging policy suggests that there will be no preferential access to the UK labour market for EU citizens, which means that it is likely that EU citizens who wish to undertake employment in the UK will be subject to the same £30,000 minimum salary threshold which currently applies to non-EEA nationals. This causes particular concerns to sectors such as construction and hospitality. Whilst the Prime Minister has said that immigration policy needs to recognise the future needs of the economy, she indicated there would not be "lots of exemptions" for different industries.
The issue is put into stark relief by recent numbers from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showing the dependency of the construction industry on EU labour, much of which would not qualify as higher skilled labour under current rules. The ONS has recently reported that of the 2.2m UK residents working in the construction industry, 10 per cent are from the EU. This figure rises dramatically when it comes to construction workers in London, where 33 per cent are from the EU.
Whilst the Government may be hoping that existing workers from the EU remain in the country after Brexit, and any gap starts to be filled by apprenticeships and the adoption of modern methods of construction, there is serious concern about a labour shortfall in an industry which already has a significant skills gap and, when it comes to UK nationals in the industry, an ageing workforce.
Whilst any new immigration policy would not come into force until the expiry of the transition period, expected in January 2021, we can expect a period of intense lobbying from the construction industry to ensure that a restrictive immigration policy does not lead to serious labour shortages and act as a brake on economic growth.