Boris Johnson, who is today being formally appointed as prime minister, is being urged by HR and immigration experts to explain his precise position on migration to give employers much-needed certainty over their access to future talent.
Despite the issue being a prominent factor in the Brexit debate, post-Brexit migration was conspicuous by its absence among the priorities set out by Johnson yesterday – which included the need to take the UK out of Europe by 31 October.
The new Conservative leader has previously said that under him the country would be “much more open” to skilled migrants, but has yet to commit to what this would mean in numerical or practical terms.
During the final debate in the run-up to the Conservative Party leadership election, he refused to enter a “numbers game” about reducing net migration and said that the vote to leave Europe was a message to "control" immigration.
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Steven Toft, organisational analyst and HR commentator, warned that although Johnson's instincts on migration were relatively liberal, the incoming prime minister "bends with whatever audience he is talking to, so he will take a harder line on immigration if he thinks it is politically expedient to do so”.
“While Johnson is instinctively more pro-immigration than most Conservatives, he is going to face a difficult balancing act and the inability to deliver some of the promises he has made,” Toft added. “All of which makes it quite difficult to predict the impact of a Johnson government on UK immigration.
“What we can say, almost for certain, is that the current uncertainty for UK businesses and for non-UK citizens working here is likely to continue for a while.”
Johnson has indicated that he is in favour of an Australian-style points system to control the flow of workers into the UK following the two-year transition period from the point Brexit actually takes place. Under this approach, prospective migrants would be awarded points for factors such as whether they have a job offer, their English language skills and their age.
Karendeep Kaur, senior immigration consultant at Migrate UK, said: “Although Boris doesn’t commit to reducing immigration levels, he does propose to put in place a stringent points-based system like Australia, which will see an elitist immigration system that takes into consideration a migrant’s level of skill, education, age and English language proficiency – thus sidelining the lower-skilled migrants.”
But it is not always clear exactly which aspects of Australia’s immigration policy are being proposed, added Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory. The impact of such a system in the UK would depend on the details, including which skills points would be issued for, whether the route was for temporary or permanent visas, and whether employer sponsorship would still be required, said Sumption.
“A key question is whether the new leadership team will want to make major structural changes to the post-Brexit policies the government is already developing – if so, that could slow things down,” she added.
Attitudes towards immigration also have changed since the referendum. Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies, told People Management: “Public attitudes to immigration have softened, while employers in sectors facing labour shortages want immigration policies that are more nuanced and flexible.
“The new prime minister, as in so many other areas of policy, will need to demonstrate some neat footwork and greater clarity on the detail of immigration policy in the weeks ahead.”
An early declaration of Johnson’s plans to tackle migration “would be helpful, subject to the ongoing Home Office engagement programme to receive proper feedback that any proposals are workable and fit for purpose”, said David Camp, chief executive of the Association of Labour Providers.
However, Gerwyn Davies, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, told People Management that, despite the uncertainty, he would be surprised if there was a significant departure from the immigration white paper released in December.
Davies added that employers needed to carry out sophisticated workforce planning to “identify where the gaps are expected to lie and how they can best respond to them”.
Last week, a coalition of business and education bodies, including the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, called on the next prime minister to reduce the salary threshold for overseas workers proposed by the government from £30,000 to £20,000, to avoid worsening skills shortages.
More than 60 per cent of all jobs in the UK pay less than £30,000. This highlights the risk in setting the future level too high for vital services such as health and social care, according to the coalition.
But while the possibility of a no-deal Brexit remains, employers should be “preparing for the worst”, according to Jo Sellick, managing director of recruitment firm Sellick Partnership.
Writing in a post on LinkedIn yesterday, he warned: “After 31 October 2019, anything could happen and, if we do leave without a deal as expected, our EU workforce could take a massive blow, leaving us short of the talent we need to run our country efficiently.”