In future, only those with the skills that the government deems the nation requires will be allowed into the UK.
There will be no cap on numbers and no requirement for the highest skilled workers to undertake a resident labour market test, but there will be a minimum salary threshold. This will be determined after consultation with business lobbyists.
Seasonal and low-skilled workers will be able to come and work in the UK on a short-term basis, but they will have no rights to access public funds, settle or bring dependents. The government has decided that construction trades are all low skilled.
The Home Office has published a white paper setting out initial proposals to allow short-term workers to come to the UK for 12 months at a time, followed by a year-long cooling-off period to prevent long-term working.
“We will be engaging extensively with business and stakeholders on the length of the stay and cooling-off period to make sure we get this right,” said home secretary Sajid Javid.
“These proposals will give protection to British workers, but we have recognised that immigration alone cannot be the solution.”
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has been tasked with keeping the scheme under review.
There will be no limits on the number of overseas students who can study in the UK and “the most talented graduates” will be encouraged to stay and work, the home secretary said.
The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) is not impressed. FMB chief executive Brian Berry said: “The government seems hell-bent on ignoring the business community when it comes to its immigration policy, as demonstrated by this disastrous white paper. Despite more than two years of constructive engagement, what has been proposed by ministers takes on none of our feedback. If the government wants to jeopardise the UK economy for the sake of meeting an arbitrary immigration target, it’s going the right way about it.”
Mr Berry continued: “What’s particularly worrying is the government’s obsession with salary thresholds for migrant workers entering the UK. The figure of £30,000 was floated in the Migration Advisory Committee report and was met by fierce opposition from almost all sectors. It makes no sense to draw meaningless lines in the sand when we should base our immigration policy on what will make our economy strong and productive. The white paper also states categorically that it will make no allowances for so-called low skilled workers. This is wrong on two levels – firstly, the definition of low skilled will cover most construction tradespeople and secondly, genuinely low skilled workers, such as labourers, are essential to the safe and smooth running of any construction site.”
Mr Berry concluded: “12-month work visas for occupations in short supply during the transition period simply won’t cut it. Small and medium-sized construction firms, which make up 99% of the industry, do not advertise for roles internationally. Also, from a migrant worker’s perspective, why go to the UK for just 12 months when they can settle in other countries for much longer and put down roots if they wish. If the 12-month work visa idea was supposed to be an olive branch to the business community, it leaves much to be desired. The government describes the construction and house building sectors as strategic and central to delivering its own aims. However, the plans set out today would make it impossible to meet the government’s house building targets and the world-class infrastructure projects we have in the pipeline will be nothing but a pipedream.”
Scape Group chief executive Mark Robinson said: “The government could ease the minds of the industry and classify construction workers as highly skilled. Construction trades require specific and detailed knowledge and it is a classification that is as arbitrary as it is unhelpful and could be hugely damaging to the UK.”
Even Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds, who holds the skills brief on the government-sponsored Construction Leadership Council, voiced reservations about the immigration reforms. “It is vital that the UK construction industry maintains access to migrant workers of all skill levels following Brexit,” he said. “I am pleased to see that a temporary visa for workers who are less highly skilled has been announced. Alongside the longer-term solution for mid and high skilled workers, this visa will help to ensure that UK construction can maintain access to the vital talent of migrant workers we rely on, while also growing our investment in the domestic workforce.
“From labourers to bricklayers to architects, construction relies on migrants across a range occupations, earning a variety of salaries. It is encouraging to see that government is consulting on the £30,000 minimum salary threshold. We are keen to ensure migrant workers across the wide range of shortage occupations found within the sector are able to come and work in the UK after Brexit.”
However, changes were needed to make the system workable, Mark Reynolds said. “The new migration system must be affordable and accessible for employers of all sizes. Construction is made up of mostly smaller firms who would struggle to navigate the current system for recruiting non-EU workers,” he said. “It’s great that the government is planning to simplify this system, but we will need to see significant change for small firms to access migrant workers.”