Theresa May’s Brexit speech: what will it mean for migration and employment?

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Following Theresa May’s speech on 17 January 2017, laying out the UK’s objectives for its exit from the EU, questions surrounding migration and any impact this may have on employment remain key.

Mrs May used her much-anticipated speech to announce her priorities for Brexit negotiations, including “control” of migration between the UK and the EU. ‘Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe, and that is what we will deliver,’ she said. However, she added that she wanted to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, as well as the rights of British nationals living in EU member states. EU leaders have warned that the UK cannot access the single market, which allows the free movement of goods, services and workers between its members, while at the same time restricting the free movement of people. In order to restrict freedom of movement the UK will have to leave the single market.

We already knew that Theresa May will make ending free movement a top priority. In that sense, her speech last week confirms what we already know. However, after her speech some claims remain problematic. Her claim that we can build a truly ‘global Britain’ is incompatible with her top policy priority of reducing immigration from both inside and outside the EU, including skilled workers and students. The fact that Theresa May recognises in this speech, that we must continue to attract the brightest and best to work and study in Britain, is a positive sign for the future talent of our workforce. But how she manages this as part of her policy to control immigration will be critical to ensuring that British organisations that rely on the skills of an international workforce remain strong.

As May says, we need highly skilled immigration but some of the Government’s immigration policies, announced last year, include introducing a tougher work permit system and a tighter resident labour market test for companies to pass before recruiting EU employees. These polices could threaten the future skills of our workforce. They could see the introduction of costly and time consuming policies for organisations that employ EU workers, whilst work permits could heavily limit EU migrants from Britain unless they already have a skilled job offer.

The Prime Minister may have said in this speech that she wants to secure the rights of EU nationals in Britain, but if companies want to be certain over the future of their EU skills, then many are advising that they encourage any EU workers, who are classified as a ‘qualified persons’, to apply for a registration certificate. This will prove their right to live or to work in the UK and give the assurance employers need ahead of any immigration changes imposed.

What remains unclear in this speech is that if free movement of people is to end, what will the government implement in its place to ensure businesses can access the skills and talent they need?

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