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Brexit: Industry needs labour clarity now

One of the biggest headaches for construction post-Brexit is the issue of EU labour.

ONS statistics highlight the potential scale of the problem, showing that as much as 30 per cent of London’s construction workers are from the EU.

Back in March, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors warned more than 175,000 construction workers could be lost in the event of a hard Brexit, a number that would surely have a big impact on projects.

Immigration minister Brandon Lewis writes exclusively in Construction News today about this issue, trying to reassure contractors that there will be no “cliff edge” when the UK leaves the EU at the end of March 2019.

Mr Lewis reiterates comments made recently by prime minister Theresa May when she said that EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be “able to stay”.

And he promises that the government will roll out its settled status scheme for EU citizens living in the UK next year.

But what is still unclear is what happens after that, and whether UK construction (or other sectors) will have access to EU citizens living outside the UK following Brexit.

Addressing contractors, Mr Lewis writes in his article: “We won’t move to [a] new immigration system in one single step and I want to take those steps together with you.”

He says that the UK will always welcome the “most skilled and brightest” from abroad, but that the industry needs to develop more homegrown talent.

The urgent need for a new immigration system was illustrated in a PwC report earlier this week, which said boosting training of UK nationals to replace EU workers post-Brexit is unlikely to be sufficient to tackle the shortfall.

Many contractors we speak to are rightly concerned about this – it’s all well and good saying we need to boost training, but that need existed before Brexit without a great deal being done about it at a strategic level.

And with CITB on the brink of a major restructure that is set to take the better part of a year to implement, that doesn’t look like changing in the short term.

Build UK chairman and deputy COO at Mace Mark Castle even told CN in September that the UK would need to maintain access to EU labour for “up to the next decade”.

While Mr Lewis’ reassurances on immigration should be welcomed, this industry needs further clarity on what will happen in the long term after March 2019.

With a desperate need for more housing and numerous major infrastructure projects in the pipeline, the government must wake up to the fact that UK construction will need EU citizens’ help to deliver it.

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