Parliament rejects Brexit agreement

The UK Parliament on 15 January voted by an unprecedented majority to reject Prime Minister Theresa May and the European Union’s agreement on Brexit. In the aftermath of the vote, which also upturns the transitional arrangements that would have seen free movement continue to the end of 2020, the opposition has tabled a ‘no confidence’ challenge that could result in a change in policy or even government.

In any event, given the EU’s firm stance that it would not renegotiate the Brexit deal, the current default position is a no-deal Brexit on 29 March 2019. Though moves are being taken by some MPs to circumvent this possibility, alongside calls for an extension of the Article 50 deadline to allow other options to be explored, a no-deal scenario cannot yet be discounted.

This means that for the moment, the continuing rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa beyond 29 March is again uncertain, though the UK has not retracted its intention to apply its EU Settlement Scheme to EU citizens currently living and working in the UK.

The government has published earlier a new web portal to provide information and advice to businesses and individuals on what they need to do to prepare for Brexit, including under a no-deal scenario. The CIPD meanwhile, will continue to provide news and updated guidance to support its members and the HR profession and to continue active engagement with law makers and other key stakeholders on the relevant considerations.

Post-Brexit immigration policy White Paper

The latest developments mean that the government’s post-Brexit immigration plans may need to kick in sooner than expected. Its policy White Paper, published in December 2018, outlines a single skills-based system that would apply to EU and non-EU migrants alike once free movement comes to an end.

The proposals adopt ‘in full or in part’ all of the recommendations made by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which in turn were informed by CIPD evidence and advice and are broadly in line with the CIPD’s own policy recommendations.

The post-Brexit system would not impose a cap on the number of skilled workers migrating to the UK, to ensure that employers ‘have access to the skills that add most value to the UK economy’. It provides a new, intermediate-skill route at A-level (or equivalent) as well as graduate and post-graduate levels. The paper announces the government’s intention to consult further on the minimum salary threshold which the MAC had advised to be set at £30,000. The CIPD welcomes this initiative to engage businesses and employers on the issue, but Head of Public Policy Ben Willmott cautioned that government must also be ‘in full listening mode’ within the wider consultation.

‘Policy makers must recognise that the UK is already a less attractive place for EU workers to live and work in, evidenced by the fall in net migration of EU workers to the UK in recent months. Unless the concerns and insights from employers are fully taken on board, these proposals might really be a case of closing the stable door after the horses have stopped coming’, he said.

Temporary measure for low-skilled workers

On the advice of the MAC, a route for low-skilled migrant workers has not been specifically provided. However, in acknowledgment of the enormous adjustments some sectors may be forced to make, a transitional measure for temporary workers to stay for a limited period has been proposed. The visa will not carry entitlements to access public funds or rights to extend the stay, bring dependants or switch to other routes. The option would also be restricted to specified countries, for example, those which are ‘low-risk’ and with which the UK negotiates ‘migration commitments and mobility proposals’.

Willmott said it was ‘encouraging’ to see employers’ continued need for low-skilled workers after Brexit recognised through this ‘new route for temporary short-term workers of any skill level. However, this proposal needs to be further developed on the basis of employer insights.’ The CIPD will be consulting members on whether the proposed 12-month visa for this route should be extended, for example to two or three years, to make it more attractive for migrants to come work in the UK after Brexit.

Workforce planning and development imperative

Despite these planned measures to allow continued access to overseas labour supply, they may not be enough to restore the declining flow of both EU and non-EU migrant workers. Employers must take action therefore to make workforce planning and development a priority, to ensure they have the people and skills necessary to deliver on their business objectives. In particular, the CIPD encourages its members and the wider HR profession to review and broaden their recruitment strategies, invest in training — including in line management — and boost workforce flexibility to address potential skills gaps and keep workers incentivised to stay for longer term.

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