Immigration was a hot topic at this week’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. As well as positioning our voice on post-EU referendum debates around jobs, skills and apprenticeships, our discussions with Ministers and MPs focused on current staff shortages and on the need to build an immigration model that reflects labour market needs.
Here are some of the key messages we took forward and took away from Birmingham:
- Reducing overall numbers remains a priority for government - Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the government would be sticking to its target of radically reducing the numbers of overseas workers. This will create challenges for recruiters who are already struggling to meet demand for staff across a wide range of sectors (see below).
- Staff shortages are not limited to highly skilled roles - The Chancellor acknowledged the need to “attract the brightest and the best to work in the UK” but we used a number of the fringe events to underline the fact that recruiters are also regularly reporting shortages in sectors like hospitality, driving, logistics and care. We got this point across directly to David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU who responded by saying that “changes would be gradual and that the government would always look at what is in the best interests of the country”.
- Proposals for listing foreign workers are misguided - Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s suggestion that employers should report on their number of overseas workers was highly controversial. The REC position is that this is not a sensible suggestions for a number of reasons. Employers and recruiters want to hire the best person for the role and have a legal duty to treat all those legally entitled to work in this country equally. The message the proposal sends out also contradicts the ‘Global Britain’ and ‘Britain open for business’ narrative.
- Overseas doctors were also in the spotlight - Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced measures to train up to 1500 more doctors every year from September 2018 and to increase the number of medical school places by up to a quarter. We can all agree on the need to train more doctors but the repeated to references to the importance of ‘reducing dependency on overseas doctors’ was seen by many as denigrating the vital contribution of doctors and other healthcare workers from overseas.
- The need to invest in British workers was a recurrent theme - Amber Rudd also underlined the need to ensure that overseas workers are “filling gaps in the labour market, not doing jobs that British workers could do” and to “review the incentives for business to invest in British workers”. Apprenticeships were seen as one of the key means of upskilling UK workers but the feedback from REC members is that attracting local people into sectors like hospitality, agriculture, industrial and care remains a major challenge.
Business Secretary Greg Clark argued that ‘our labour market works well for the vast majority of people; we want it to work for everyone’. No-one would disagree with this sentiment which ties in with our own ‘Jobs Transform Lives’ mantra. REC members are already playing a proactive role – for example, by promoting good recruitment practice to their clients (through the REC Good Recruitment Campaign) and by reaching out to under-represented groups. At the same time, we will continue to need staff and skills from overseas across a range of sector. This is the message we took forward to Ministers and MPs in Birmingham.
The strapline of the Conservative conference was ‘A Country that Works for Everybody’; our aim is to ensure that we also build an immigration model that works for employers and recruiters.