October 23, 2020

Construction industry reacts to MAC report’s post-Brexit recommendations

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report, which sets out a series of recommendations for the new immigration policy post-Brexit, has received a mixed reaction from the construction industry.

Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) believes the recommendations would cripple the construction industry. “Today’s report makes very worrying reading for the tens of thousands of small construction firms across the UK who are already deeply concerned about the skills shortage. Its recommendations ignore the pleas of construction employers who have called on the Government to introduce a visa system based on key occupations rather than arbitrary skill levels. Instead, the proposal is to apply the Tier 2 immigration system to EU workers, which would be disastrous for small and micro construction firms. Even if tweaked and improved slightly, the Tier 2 system would not make provision for ample numbers of low skilled workers to enter the UK and these are people the construction industry relies upon. For the Government to make good on its construction and house building targets, it will need sufficient numbers of labourers as well as civil engineers and quantity surveyors.

“It’s not at all clear that EU workers with important skills already in short supply, like bricklaying and carpentry, will not fall foul of a crude and limited definition of ‘high skilled’ worker. In addition, the report explicitly recommends that there should be no migration route for lower skilled workers with a possible exception for seasonal agricultural workers. There is also a vague suggestion that if there was a route for lower skilled workers, it should be aimed at younger people and not be open to workers of all ages. This is far too restrictive and simply won’t meet the needs of the construction industry.”

“EU workers are vitally important to the UK construction sector. Nine per cent of our construction workers are from the EU and in London, this increases to one third. These workers have played a very significant role in mitigating the severe skills shortages we have experienced in recent years. The construction industry knows it needs to do much more to recruit and train many more domestic workers. However, given the important role migrant workers have played, and the already high levels of employment in the UK workforce, it is crucial that the post-Brexit immigration system allows us to continue to hire workers of varying skill levels, regardless of where they are from.”

The National Federation of Builders (NFB), meanwhile, has welcomed the report, which highlights the value of migration to small and medium-sized (SMEs) builders and the construction industry. However, the NFB warned that shortage occupation lists must be responsive and visas for self-employed workers need to be clear and comprehensible.

Focusing on enabling higher-skilled migration while restricting lower-skilled migration, the report does not recommend separate, employer-led sector based routes, for low skilled migrants, with the possible exception of seasonal agricultural workers. The MAC also states that 40% of self-employed workers are concentrated in three construction sectors and would typically qualify for a Tier 1 visa. However, due to complexities with the existing scheme, the MAC is unable to make recommendations on how it should be changed.

Richard Beresford, Chief Executive of the NFB, said: “A lack of skilled workers stifles industry growth and the capacity to build more homes. We welcome the report’s recommendations, including a review into the shortage occupation list and the sponsor licensing system for SMEs.

“Abolishing the cap of migrants under Tier 2 visas and reviewing shortage occupation lists would signal a positive step but, with the MAC avoiding any recommendation for self-employed workers, the Government must provide clarity to a vital part of the construction industry.”

Responding to the MAC report, Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) Chief Executive, Neil Carberry, said: “The MAC’s recognition that free movement from Europe hasn’t reduced employment opportunities, training or wages for people in the UK is a timely resetting of the debate. That, on balance, immigration has a raised UK productivity is a reminder of the contribution that migrants bring.

“The MAC’s role was to make policy recommendations based on economics alone – without reference to the politics of the UK’s relations with the EU – so today’s report must be read in that context. It is now up to the government to use the report’s findings to create a truly effective immigration strategy.

“The UK’s economic success depends on ensuring we protect our modern, flexible jobs market which drives growth and prosperity. This means having an immigration system that allows employers to recruit for roles at all skill levels depending on the needs of the economy. Today’s report acknowledges this – though we feel that more sectors will need controlled access to lower skilled labour and that the government should still seek to secure a comprehensive mobility deal in the EU exit agreement, given how deeply linked our economies are.

“Businesses across the country will welcome the MAC’s recommendation to remove the unpopular and ineffective Tier 2 visa cap, expand shortage lists to include more middle-skilled roles and to expand the Tier 5 youth mobility scheme to EU nationals. However, we must also recognise that the Tier 5 visa scheme was not designed for low-skilled workers, and only allowing low-skilled work through Tier 5 will risk damaging integration and progression routes for migrant workers.

“Significant questions will need to be answered about the practicalities and detail of these reforms in order to reassure businesses that their needs will be fulfilled in post-Brexit Britain. At the very least, a radical simplification of Tier 2 will be needed to ensure all businesses – including the very smallest – can access it.”