Government’s reactive approach to immigration is stymying growth

On 17 July 2023, the Home Office announced that it is relaxing visa requirements for construction workers. Various roles within the construction sector, including plasterers, carpenters, joiners, bricklayers and masons, roofers, roof tilers and slaters have all been added to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL).

The changes, which will be welcomed by the sector, will temporarily ease visa restrictions, making it easier and slightly cheaper for overseas construction workers to live and work in the UK.  

There have been similar changes to benefit the fishing sector and there’s also good news for the care sector, as care workers, home carers and senior care workers will remain on the SOL for the time being. 

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While these changes are a step in the right direction for many organisations, what about UK businesses in other sectors still struggling to recruit?

For how long will the care and construction sectors benefit from these relaxed visa rules?

Do these changes really benefit UK businesses, or is the government merely tinkering around the edges of an already broken system? 

The feedback from many UK businesses is that the government’s continuous ‘flip-flopping’ on which job market needs foreign workers makes it difficult to plan ahead. The care sector can recruit overseas care workers today, but what about tomorrow, next month, next year?  

For the hospitality industry, it was only in response to restaurants and hotels having to close their doors because of a lack of chefs that the Home Office took steps to remedy this situation by relaxing the rules in this area but, by this time, it was already too late for many businesses in this sector.

There are similar stories to be told with poultry workers at Christmas, seasonal agricultural workers, HGV drivers… the list goes on.

The government’s reactive approach to immigration policy leaves many UK businesses in difficult or even impossible situations. 

Earlier in the year, the government announced a £15 million fund to support international recruitment in adult social care over the next two years.

Again, a welcome move for the industry, with the additional funds helping the sector fill 165,000 vacancies reported in 2021/2022.  

However, on 13 July 2023, the chief secretary to the Treasury announced an impending increase to visa fees across a range of immigration and nationality routes and proposed increases to the Immigration Health Surcharge of 66% (from £624 per person, per year to £1,035 per person, per year).  

Although we don’t yet have a date for these increases to be implemented, they will be catastrophic for many UK businesses, already struggling to weather the storm.

With one arm of the government providing funding to the struggling care sector and the other increasing visa fees across the board, is this a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul or, further still, robbing Peter to pay Peter? 

The government’s sporadic and reactionary approach to UK immigration policy is unhelpful to UK businesses and the wider economy. A long-term policy structure is needed, so businesses can ensure a sustainable pipeline of incoming talent and guard against uncertainties ahead.  

The inclusion of the construction roles on the SOL is undoubtedly a step forward, rather than a step back but because of the impending increases to visa fees and the myriad of hurdles which discourage UK businesses from recruiting from overseas, the changes are of limited value.

Construction businesses may well continue to look at other options (to the extent that there are other options), as alternatives to overseas recruitment.  

Angela Barnes is head of business migration at AfterAthena, launched by law firm Napthens