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Brexit is arguably the most disruptive and divisive moment in modern British politics. Since the referendum, there has been a plethora of parliamentary squabbles and government infighting. Meaning the middle ground of workable solutions does not easily get air time amidst strongly held views and suspicions.
An important issue is what rights EU citizens should have to work and live in the UK. The recent news of Indian trainee doctors from being declined visas is an example of many further debates about what the future workforce arrangements for EU and non-EU workers should look like. As a nation our government has promised us both the end of freedom of movement and maintaining labour mobility.
While focus has shifted since the 'road to Brexit’ speeches to the Customs Union and the very sticking point issue of the Northern Ireland border, it’s also vital that the government finds the right workforce solution. And the needs of public services should be a key part of any such conversation, given the reliance of the sector on EU skills and labour.
We have all witnessed first-hand the critical contribution EU workers make to the success of the UK public sector. And a wealth of evidence demonstrates how the system greatly relies upon the contribution of both highly-skilled and lower-skilled staff. Particularly in the areas such as health and social care, where EU staff make up 5.7% and 7% of these work forces respectively.
Because of the significant influence EU staff have on the sector, CIPFA’s Brexit Advisory Commission for Public Services has attempted to define what the right deal would be. It examined the different workforce settlement options that the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) claims could be on the table, and found that all but one would fail to meet the needs of public services.
The report highlights that, aside from continuing freedom of movement, the majority of the politically viable options aren’t flexible enough to allow public services to recruit the staff they need. As the sector has to be able to recruit top-end talent, such as doctors and lecturers, as well as highly-valued lower-skilled staff, like care workers.
Through careful analysis of the facts, a bespoke deal seems like the best option available, which would allow reciprocal free movement for those defined as skilled workers, coupled with sector-based quotas for lower-skilled jobs that employers are struggling to fill.
A bespoke deal could also make it possible to introduce regional variations in immigration policy, to allow for parts for parts of the country that are dependent on particular types of workers to recruit from the EU. This could, as one example, be greatly beneficial to London and the South East, areas that have a greater reliance on EU social workers and NHS staff in comparison to other parts of the UK. Regional variations could also be delivered in tandem with greater local control over skills, giving areas with directly-elected mayors, such as Greater Manchester, the opportunity to balance the needs of local public sector organisations with other considerations, such as pressure on housing.
Policing a regional element to the visa system does present some difficulties, however, and the Migration Observatory has argued that it would be of little difference to the current scheme for Tier 2 visas. Making it less cumbersome and bureaucratic than other workforce options, such as a points-based system, which would prevent the UK from attracting the same level of skills and talent from the EU as it currently does.
If there were any future shortfalls in recruitment it is unlikely that British workers would be able to pick up the slack. And actions such as increasing immigration from other parts of the world and boosting pay levels to make public service jobs more attractive to UK workers would be necessary. The impact of the latter would be significant. For example, around 40% of the £126bn NHS budget is spent on staff.
Clearly, if we struck the wrong deal then it would have dire consequences for the scale and quality of public services that communities rely upon, and so it paramount that the government come together and get this right.