As political parties on all sides debate the issues of immigration and the end of Free Movement as part of the Brexit-fuelled General Election, Dr Karen Thomas and Dr Julie Scott explore how robust evidence is increasingly vital to businesses lobbying for the conditions conducive to future growth.

As Brexit continues to dominate the political narrative, the debates surrounding immigration and the likely effects of the end of Free Movement on the country’s labour market have loomed ever larger.  The launch of the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) Report in September 2018, and the subsequent Immigration White Paper in December 2018, with their emphasis on prioritising ‘highly skilled’ and ‘skilled’ labour migration has sharpened the focus of debate on the likely shape of the UK’s immigration system after the end of Free Movement.  In particular, the proposal to impose a £30,000 per annum minimum salary threshold on foreign workers entering the UK has provoked alarm across a range of economic sectors, from tourism and hospitality to agriculture, higher education and the creative industries.

Representations to Government have been successful in prompting an official rethink, and the MAC was recommissioned to consider new evidence under the terms of the Salary Threshold and Points-Based System Commission. Its report is due in the New Year.

In light of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and the complex arena of ‘voices’ all attempting to influence the narrative and reporting of policy debates, robust evidence is paramount in ensuring that the future immigration system will reflect the varying conditions and needs prevailing in diverse economic sectors, and in different parts of the country.  

A recently launched report – A Perfect Storm? The end of free movement and its impact on the UK tourism workforce –undertaken by the Tourism and Events Hub at Canterbury Christ Church University, for the leading travel trade association UKinbound, sought to cut through the ‘noise’ and uncertainty of the Brexit negotiations. Its aim was to provide evidence-based research to help inform UKinbound and other organisations within the tourism and hospitality sector, in their response to consultations over the future immigration policy for the UK post-Brexit.

At the core of the research is a key critical question: In an important growth sector, already suffering from skills gaps, and recruitment/retention issues, what are the potential implications of restricting the pipeline of EU workers via a nationwide skills-based immigration policy focusing on ‘highly skilled’ and ‘skilled’ workers?  EU workers have been widely reported as a vital labour pool for tourism and hospitality businesses, but our research went further to demonstrate that the national reporting of the reliance of the sector on EU nationals masks the realities of many tourism and hospitality businesses in terms of scale of reliance.  The research also uncovered significant variations in sub-sectoral, occupational and regional experiences.

The research examines a number of underlying assumptions at the heart of a national one-size fits all immigration policy.  In the process, it sheds additional light on the extent to which these meet the needs of a sector that is heavily reliant on EU workers, where the picture of skills needs is complex, and the distinction between ‘high-level’ and ‘low-level’ skills, which have taken centre stage in the current immigration debate, has little relevance to the reality of the skills gaps and skills shortages across the sector.  Regional and sub-regional differences are critical, and the picture of significant geographical variations in business activities helps to identify key ‘hotspots’ where particularly high concentrations of tourism and hospitality businesses mean that impacts will be felt, not only by business, but also on growth in the wider regional and sub-regional economy.  As a result of the evidence, UKinbound is calling for: language skills to be added to the Shortage Occupation List; any salary threshold to consider regional variations; and further monitoring, with quarterly independent reviews to ensure tourism sectors are not adversely affected.

Set against the ebb and flow of the immigration debate and the wider Brexit negotiations, currently being played out in an increasingly crowded arena, this report reinforces the need for robust research to provide industry leaders with the evidence needed to engage effectively with an ever more complex immigration consultation.

Read the research report here > A Perfect Storm? The impact of the end of Free Movement on the UK tourism workforce

‘A Perfect Storm? The impact of the end of Free Movement on the UK tourism workforce’ report was launched by UKinbound in October.  The Tourism and Events Hub, at Canterbury Christ Church University was commissioned by UKinbound to undertake and deliver the research.  Its report authors are Dr Karen Thomas, Dr Julie Scott, Dr Jim Butcher, Dr Daniel O’Donoghue and Dr Lorna Thomas.

Dr Karen Thomas is Director of the Tourism and Events Hub and Senior Lecturer in the School of Human Life Sciences.