• Tar Tumber
  • 29 March 2017

The human element of Brexit

Today, history will be made – Teresa May will push the button on Article 50, setting in motion a two-year timeframe for divorcing the EU.  It’s going to be a rather busy two years for Government officials, who will look to push through the best possible deal for an independent UK leaving the EU family.

It won’t be easy, with EU states already telling us that the UK can’t have its ‘no single market; no freedom of movement’ cake and eat it!  But ‘Brexit means Brexit’ so Brexit we will!

HR professionals won’t suddenly be hit by a raft of changing employment legislation – in fact, nothing changes at all today, and not much radical change is likely to take place when we actually depart from the EU in two years’ time.  The Government’s Great Repeal Bill will mean that we take the existing EU legislation and make it our own.  Specialist working groups will then pick through all the legislation and decide what we keep as UK law and what we get rid of. 

However, one of the biggest issues for the Government to address is around resourcing.  We are not clear yet on how Brexit will impact on EU nationals currently living and working in the UK, and UK nationals living and working in the EU.   Following EU pressure, the Prime Minister has suggested that EU nationals who have lived and worked here for at least five years will be granted full residency rights, meaning they can stay.  But what of others who have less tenure in the UK – will they get sent ‘back home’? 

And what does that mean for UK business?  How will organisations locate themselves to ensure they can recruit the right talent?  What if that talent does not exist in the UK – either in terms of skills or volume of staff required?  Will companies be able to access talent from the EU at all, or without paying huge sponsorship fines? What does that mean for UK talent? Will the next generation be able to work in Europe in years to come? I certainly believe that UK HR need to focus on what is happening with cross-border mobility and access to skills; not just on the nuances of domestic law that may alter as a result of Brexit (although this is important too!).

If we think about the impact that Brexit will have on UK-based businesses, there may be relocation requirements as companies move in or out of the EU; insolvency issues; changing expat policies; plugging skills gaps with contractors; and critically, immigration status issues.

The Government is currently consulting on proposals for tightened immigration controls, especially given the UK stance of no freedom of movement through a single market.  The Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill, announced that business and industry would be consulted on immigration policy proposals, over the summer months, to create tighter controls on EU migrants coming in to the UK, although flexing this control for different industry sectors depending on the specific industry skills requirements.

It is no secret that industry sectors from health and social care through to hospitality, food and agriculture rely heavily on migrant workers from the EU to fill positions.  Talking to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, the HR Director of Pret a Manger, Andrea Wareham, confirmed that only one in 50 applicants for the company were British, and if she had to fill all vacancies with British staff, they would never get filled.  This was not down to salary or benefits, but simply, because British people perhaps found the industry ‘undesirable’!

The National Farmers Union (NFU), which is also heavily reliant on EU workers, has told the same committee that reducing EU labour post-UK exit from the EU would impact on crop numbers and investment, and that this would lead to inflated food prices for consumers.

Tim Martin, founder of JD Wetherspoon, concurs.  He suggests that if there is no agile approach to immigration, the economy is likely to go ‘backwards’.

It is clear the Government is looking to reduce net migration to below 100,000 in the future, and can only do this by developing the skills of British staff.  There is a huge focus on apprenticeships right now, and the apprentice levy will be effective in a few days, as will the significant sponsorship fines for employers sponsoring staff from outside the EU.  But it seems, at least, that the Government is willing to consult with those that will be most affected by strict immigration policies, and take on board their views.  Only time will tell what is actually agreed with the EU, though it would certainly benefit both parties if a more flexible approach was accepted. 

Let’s see how the divorce pans out… have we checked if there was a pre-nup?