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Industry concerned by Brexit immigration white paper

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Changes proposed to the immigration system to take effect in the wake of Brexit “seriously threaten” the UK’s access to skilled labour for construction and engineering, say industry leaders.  

Plans to transition the UK immigration policy to a “skills based” approach risks damaging access to labour markets that have supported UK construction and infrastructure for years, according to a number of industry bodies.  

The most recent data, taken from the 2011 census, estimates that approximately 11% of the UK’s construction workforce was non-UK born. Over half of all non-UK born construction workers are based in the capital, and they make up 44% of London’s total construction workforce.  

New immigration rules proposed by the government would impose a minimum salary workers must secure to remain the UK – the limit of which has yet to be agreed.  

Scape Group chief executive Mark Robinson said that the UK was “heavily reliant” on talent from the EU. 

“Since the financial crash in 2008, the UK construction sector has become heavily reliant on talent from the EU – in fact, this summer it was reported that one in four construction workers in London is an EU national. 

“But given that three-quarters of EU nationals currently working in Britain earn less than £30,000 in sectors such as construction, and the UK is doing nothing to encourage the 40,000 EU citizens with low skills who currently reside in the UK to remain. We are going to face a real problem come 2021 when the new system is expected to come into effect.  

Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) chief executive Alasdair Reisner agrees with Robinson, and said that migrant labour has delivered world class infrastructure in the UK. 

“The UK construction sector has used EU and non-EU migrant labour to deliver the world-class infrastructure our country so desperately needs,” he said. 

“While we understand Government’s concerns on this matter, and have worked to address the challenges faced, it is important not to lose sight of the benefits infrastructure can bring to all who live and work in the UK.” 

Campaign for Science and Engineerin (CaSE) executive director Sarah Main said:   

“Access to international talent is a top priority for the science and engineering sector,” she said.

“The expansion of the visa system to all poses risks to research and innovation in the UK that will need to be addressed if the UK is to become ‘a global centre for scientific discovery and creativity’ as the Prime Minister wishes.”  

“The Government’s changes to the visa route for skilled workers are necessary and encouraging, particularly removing the cap on skilled workers that CaSE demonstrated was so damaging this year. However, there remain several areas of concern, for example for R&D tech start-ups and for technicians. These could combine to reduce the attractiveness of the UK for people with in-demand skills.”

In October, Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds voiced concern that the industry will suffer without access to ‘‘low skilled’’ labour under a “skills based” policy.  

Reynolds told New Civil Engineer: “It is very disappointing that the government has failed to listen to industry on the importance of maintaining access to a broad mix of labour after Brexit. The future of the UK’s construction and engineering sectors relies on the availability of both highly skilled specialists and so-called ‘low skilled’ labour.”  

“Without access to the right mix of skills we will be unable to deliver sustainable construction growth after Brexit.” 

Chief executive of the Association for Consultancy & Engineering Hannah Vickers said last month that the impact of leaving the EU would have an uncertain impact on the skills market in the UK.   

“With all the uncertainty around Brexit and its impact on skills, we need to make sure that our industry has a sound evidence base from which to argue,” she said. “We will need to come together in one voice and collectively make the case for construction to Government, ensuring that any post-Brexit agreement secures the skills our sector needs now and into the future.” 

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