Reactions from the construction industry to the UK's new points-based immigration system have been lukewarm.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has launched a new points-based immigration system, which will take effect from 1 January 2021 and will end free movement for EU and UK citizens.
The scheme will assign points for specific skills, qualifications, salaries or professions, and visas will only be awarded to those who gain enough points. It will give top priority to those with the highest skills, including scientists, engineers and academics.
Patel said: "Today is a historic moment for the whole country. We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new UK points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down.
"We will attract the brightest and the best from around the globe, boosting the economy and our communities, and unleash this country’s full potential."
With its emphasis on skills, the scheme is supposed to encourage employers to "move away" from relying on "cheap labour" from Europe and to invest in retaining staff and developing automation technology. However, this is likely to create issues for industries dependent on low-skilled workers.
Both CITB, the construction industry's training board, and the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), cautiously welcomed the announcement.
Construction Leadership Council
Mark Reynolds, CEO of Mace, and Skills Lead at the CLC, said: “Led by the CLC, organisations across the sector have been investing heavily in developing local ‘homegrown’ talent for our industry, working together to create a clear route from school and training into full time employment in construction for people across the UK.
“However, we still face a significant talent gap and for the time being must rely on being able to access the right mix of people and expertise from overseas to effectively meet the UK's infrastructure and built environment requirements. We are pleased to have clarity on this Government’s proposals for the UK’s future immigration system; but unfortunately the new system is likely to make it harder for the UK construction sector to deliver the homes and infrastructure we so desperately need.
“We welcome the salary thresholds being lowered to £25,600 in line with the MAC recommendations, however the decision to set skills thresholds to RQF3-5 is a disappointment, as it disregards skilled trades such as bricklayers and carpenters are qualified to level RQF2. This decision will impact on the ability of the sector to deliver the homes we so desperately need to solve the housing crisis.”
CITB Strategy and Policy Director Steve Radley, said: “CITB cautiously welcomes lowering the salary threshold for skilled migrants, increasing the number of construction occupations eligible to work in the UK, and the commitment to monitor and respond to skills shortages.
“These policies are essential in light of the Government’s expanded public investment programme and big ambitions for new homes.
“However, we need to see how this will work in practice, and to agree how we can minimise the impact of restrictions on low skilled workers. We will also work with Government to ensure self-employed people can continue to work in the UK construction industry through a new route that doesn’t require employer sponsorship.
“We also note the government’s commitment to investing in home grown talent and look forward to discussing how the apprenticeship system and Further Education can deliver better outcomes for industry.“
Federation of Master Builders
Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), was less positive: "If we are to have an infrastructure revolution and build a million new homes over the next five years, we will need to have an immigration system that allows for key construction workers of all skill levels to come to the UK. Today’s announcement that there will no longer be a route for “low skill” workers after next year will hamper the construction industry’s capacity to deliver on key projects."
"We will need general labourers as much as architects or surveyors. They are a core part of the construction industry and it’s simply unrealistic to assume the domestic workforce will fill this gap in the next nine months.”
Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors
Hew Edgar, Head of Government Relations & City Strategy at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, said: “The government says it is committed to delivering a million homes by the end of this parliament, but there aren’t enough people to build them.
“RICS is working to increase skills and train people here in the UK, but this new points-based system could get in the way of construction companies employing the migrant labourers they need.
“Stopping people who know how to build houses from working here risks ministers not getting the numbers of new homes they want – it’s as plain and simple as that.”
UK Warehouse Association
Similarly the UK Warehouse Association (UKWA) has warned that the logistics industry is likely to face a shortage of vital workers following the announcement.
Peter Ward, the Association’s CEO, commented: “‘Companies operating in the logistics and warehousing industry need access to low-skilled, low-cost labour and with low youth unemployment figures in the UK, the sector has traditionally looked to the EU to supplement its workforce.
He continued: “While it is hoped that the majority of EU citizens currently working in UK warehouses and distribution centres will choose to stay in Britain by applying for EU settlement scheme status, it is clear that the inability to recruit shop-floor operations staff from other countries will add to the recruitment pressure that the logistics industry is already under.”
Peter Ward questioned the Government’s suggestion that businesses will be able to reduce their reliance on foreign workers by increasing levels of pay and investing in automation.
He said: “The logistics industry operates on the narrowest of margins and it is hard to see how any significant across-the-board pay increases for low-skilled staff could be introduced without passing on the additional costs, unless the days when online shoppers expect low priced goods with cost-free and immediate delivery become a thing of the past.
“And, while it is true that the use of automation is growing across the logistics industry, there are many roles within a typical warehouse operation that remain difficult to automate. Although recent developments have made automation more scalable and flexible, for many warehouse operators the outlay on the type of fixed assets found in automated systems – is impossible to justify. Furthermore, automation does not replace a workforce, but creates new jobs with different skills, which needs investment in training and cannot be achieved overnight.
Peter Ward added: “UKWA remains committed to working with the Government to find practical solutions to the issues that lie ahead, and we are seeking urgent talks to deliver the message that the logistics industry must have access to the workers needed to ensure that the UK’s essential supply chains do not suffer as a result of these changes to our immigration rules.”