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The need for a Government rethink over labour shortages

The Government’s announcement last weekend allowing 5000 HGV drivers to come to the UK for 3 months in the run-up to Christmas does not go far enough to ensure that UK PLC remains competitive in the light of labour shortage which could cripple the post-pandemic economic recovery, according to one Nottingham immigration law specialist.

Whilst the introduction of the Skilled Worker visa in the Autumn of 2020 was overall welcomed by businesses because it lowered the skills threshold for sponsorship of migrants to RQF Level 3 and with it brought in the region of 400 occupations into the sponsorship regime, such as, senior care workers, retail managers and butchers.

However, says Thalej, many lower-skilled occupations which were dependent on EU workers missed the skilled worker net to qualify for sponsorship and the impact is being felt now.

He added: “Businesses are playing their part, and, in many sectors, we are seeing investment in automation, training and apprenticeships. However, this investment will take a generation to yield benefits. Time, which many businesses do not have if they want to survive.”

Thalej points to a lack of HGV drivers - a shortage in the region of 1,000 drivers, which has dominated media coverage in the last few weeks.

He said: “The lack of Government action is creating a situation where drivers are being lured to competitors for a higher salary leaving a gap where they left and no actual solution to the shortages. I don’t see drivers from the continent being tempted to come to the UK for 3 months, particularly when European free movement allows them to go to any country in Europe and take permanent employment”.

“We are finding a similar disruption amongst our client base due to a lack of labour across sectors such as hospitality, hotels, warehousing, meat production and construction. This problem is far deeper than just drivers” 

Thalej says a better approach will be for the Government to revisit the low-skilled workers scheme which was to be introduced by Teresa May’s Government to coincide with Brexit and its impact on the labour market.        

This visa scheme was scrapped last year by the Home Secretary allowing time to assess the actual impact of Brexit and Covid on the economy. 

They have now got their answer, says Thalej. 

He added: “The previous proposals for the low-skilled visa would allow workers to come to the UK for 12 months, though it is arguable that this should extend to longer period now of perhaps 24-36 months to ensure stability of workers, with no rights to extend stay, switch immigration status or permanent settlement – which would appease those who are concerned with increase in migration to the UK.”

The route was to be opened to citizens of ‘low risk’ countries with which the UK negotiates migration commitments and mobility proposals.

He concluded: “The Government should stop acting in a piecemeal manner to the labour crisis i.e. HGV drivers one week and another sector the following week but rather give certainty across the economy where there are known shortages. Such a scheme does not need to be permanent and over time, if necessary, the Government can impose restrictions such as it being applicable to specific sectors or impose numerical caps or even close the scheme if economic conditions warrant”.

Tony Goodger, spokesperson for the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, said: “We have taken several ideas to Government around easing the language requirements in order that skilled butchers from overseas can gain the necessary points to receive a work visa. To date the Home Office have not chosen to progress these. However, we welcome the establishment of a new cross Government working group chaired by the Cabinet Office Secretary, Stephen Barclay MP, which is looking at the labour supply chain issues and hope that they will progress our suggestions. It is extraordinary that a fish processor is seen as having RQF3 level skills and allowed to apply for a skilled worker visa and a meat processor isn’t. It’s time that some of the anomalies were resolved."

Greg Tyler, Director at 360 Recruitment, said: “Phrases like – ‘the perfect storm’ are all I am hearing at the moment. EU workers have gone home and it's now impossible to bring in skilled workers from inside, or outside the EU. We have clients who are on the verge of closing huge factories because they simply do not have enough staff to keep them running. These are perfectly viable businesses with huge order books and ongoing demand." 

Chris Hobson, Director of Policy at East Midlands Chamber, added: “Employers are really starting to struggle when it comes to recruiting staff with the right skills – and at a time when the economy is looking to recover this has the potential to cause significant problems. In our latest economic survey 7 in 10 businesses reported problems in recruiting staff with the right skills, and this existed across the whole spectrum of job roles from entry up to highly skilled. In the longer-term it’s important that we can train people with the right skills and attributes they need for our economy to succeed, but in the here and now it would be a failure of policy if this lack of access to skills stunts our recovery.”