Was the recent general election result a setback for the construction sector?
There seems to be a lot of concern that a minority Conservative government, supported by the DUP, will be too weak to drive through a substantive legislative agenda at a time when our industry can ill afford timidity or paralysis.
One possible advantage of the new dynamic in the Commons, however, is that we might now avoid the ‘hard Brexit’ Theresa May sought a mandate for.
The Federation of Master Builders has been urging the government to build in some flexibility to a post-Brexit immigration policy.
Yet it was difficult to see how such tractability could be achieved while an intractable immigration target of tens of thousands was being pursued.
Particularly in London and the South-east, the concern was that the supply of labour from the European Union – so crucial in plugging the skills gaps up until now – would suddenly become a lot harder to access, especially for smaller firms unable to deal with costly or complex bureaucratic visa procedures.
There now exists the possibility of a ‘business-first’ Brexit – one that is more receptive to the needs of our industry.
Ideally, this would mean an immigration system that continues to allow EU migrants with the required skills to come to the UK, although we recognise that some change is necessary given that the government has committed to ending freedom of movement.
What’s important is that the government does not simply extend the ‘Tier 2’ system currently in place for the majority of non-EU workers. This system does not work for small firms, as workers must already have a skilled job offer and a certificate of sponsorship from a UK employer before entering the country.
“We need a stronger signal from the government that the UK remains a welcome place for talented workers, especially in light of a declining pound weakening the appeal of a career here”
It isn’t practical to expect small businesses to advertise for new staff on an international level, competing for new recruits against large firms with slick recruitment processes. And it should not be taken for granted that EU workers will continue to want to come to this country in the shorter term.
We know from the recent Queen’s Speech that EU nationals who have lived in the UK for five years or more will have the right to remain. But what about the much-needed bricklayers and carpenters who might have been considering a move to the UK to build a new life in 2017? Surely the five-year rule will put many of them off.
Recent stats from the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory show a 35 per cent fall in the number of national insurance numbers being issued to those from the EU8 countries that joined the union in 2004. These are the countries that have typically supplied the bulk of EU migrant labour.
We need a stronger signal from the government that the UK remains open for business and a welcome place for talented workers to move to, especially in light of a declining pound weakening the appeal of a career here.
Working with the government on its industrial strategy and its renewed commitment to high standards of training is a priority for the FMB.
Nevertheless, we must be realistic.
A flourishing construction industry relies upon having a skilled workforce. That means taking a pragmatic approach to immigration now and for the foreseeable future.
Brian Berry is chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders