Comment: Time's running out if you need skilled EU citizens

It is the height of panto season '“ but it was no laughing matter for many commentators as they digested the contents of the UK Government's long-promised white paper (WP) on immigration and how EU citizens may be affected post-Brexit.

Now is the time for firms and their representative bodies to lobby hard, says Smith. Picture: contributed.

The WP was delivered stage left by Home Secretary Sajid Javid, doubtless viewed as the panto villain by those business ­owners who believe the wheels of UK industry will grind to halt with fewer EU and international workers allowed to live and work here.

While there were some positives, there are also concerns. Against a backdrop of the potential mobilisation of 3,500 troops and other hard Brexit preparations under way, the WP does not countenance such an outcome. On the contrary, it has been ­published on the basis that the EU ­withdrawal agreement will be implemented. As such EU citizens will have until December 2020 to apply for “settled ­status”, letting them live and work in the UK permanently.

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While politically it may be expedient to take the withdrawal agreement route, businesses must wonder why at this late stage such an important paper is linked to only one outcome and that a potentially huge void has not been addressed.

Should a hard Brexit prevail, a 21-month window for employers and employees will shrink to less than 12 weeks, meaning EU citizens wishing to work in the UK would have to be resident here by 29 March 2019. Employers who have recruitment requirements for late 2019 and beyond may want to consider accelerating those plans and to bring in EU nationals before the potential March cut-off.

The current limit of 20,700 workers classed as high-skilled coming to the UK using Tier 2 visas is to be scrapped. ­However, it is suggested that a £30,000 minimum earnings rule that already applies to non-EU workers in most Tier 2 cases will be extended to EU citizens.

But, in the real world, highly skilled does not always equal high pay, and NHS ­managers and social care professionals are seriously concerned about the potential impact on recruitment to the health and care sectors.

It seems that the £30,000 proposal split the Cabinet. As a result, this has been pushed out for consultation with employers and business organisations. Therefore, now is the time for businesses and their representative bodies to lobby hard and to make their voices heard by sending a strong New Year message about the practicalities of such an imposition.

Low or unskilled workers from the EU and “low-risk” non-EU countries will have to apply for a temporary “transitional” 12-month visa, but will then have to leave the country for at least a 12 month cooling-off period. It is being suggested 12-month visas will address the removal of the EU nationals pool, but many employers, particularly those in the hospitality and construction sectors, may take the view that temporary visas will not meet their needs for long-term planning and a stable and productive workforce, with high staff turnover costly and bad for productivity.

The youth mobility scheme, which allows 18 to 30-year-olds to live and work in the UK for up to two years will be extended to cover EU nationals, while graduate students will be allowed six months to find work after finishing their studies, with PhD students afforded a year to secure employment.

It is safe to say the immigration system proposed will be much more restrictive than we have right now and, by default, it is going to make life more difficult for businesses to recruit. As the March dateline approaches, we will find a lot of individuals suddenly rushing to take advantage of “settled status” when it becomes available and businesses rushing to try and protect their own position in advance of a potential hard Brexit. It remains to be seen if the Home Office infrastructure will cope with that.

Euan Smith, partner and head of immigration at law firm Pinsent Masons