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Business reacts to May's Brexit speech

Theresa May said she wanted to confirm the status of EU workers in Britain but also 'get control' of immigration

The business community has reacted to Theresa May's speech on Brexit, in which she said she wanted to "guarantee the rights" of EU citizens living in the UK but also "get control" of immigration.

In a speech at Lancaster House in London May outlined her 12 objectives for Brexit negotiations, including control of immigration and rights for EU nationals.

“We want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as we can,” she said. “I have told other EU leaders that we could give people the certainty they want straight away, and reach such a deal now.

“Many of them favour such an agreement – one or two others do not – but I want everyone to know that it remains an important priority for Britain – and for many other member states – to resolve this challenge as soon as possible.”

CIPD CEO Peter Cheese said it was "disappointing" that Theresa May was unable to confirm whether EU citizens already residing in the UK would be able to stay.

Katie Newbury, senior associate in the immigration law team at Kingsley Napley, echoed Cheese. "EU citizens here remain in limbo and will be hugely disappointed that they did not receive the certainty they sought from today’s speech,” she said.

“We call upon Mrs May to ensure there are proper and effective transitional provisions in place as a matter of priority. It is essential these reflect the practicalities of requiring three million people to get documented and the harsh reality of limited Home Office resources.”

May also addressed immigration, saying that the UK would "get control of the number of people coming to Britain from the EU".

"While controlled immigration can bring great benefits – filling skills shortages, delivering public services, making British businesses the world beaters they often are – when the numbers get too high public support for the system falters," she said.

Alan Price, director at employment law and HR consultancy Peninsula Business Services, said that future control of immigration domestically could result in talent shortages.

“For many employers the prime minister’s confirmation that immigration will be controlled domestically is one of the most important objectives of the speech,” he said. “For businesses that rely heavily on large numbers of migrant workers, such as agriculture, food and drink and manufacturing, future curbs may restrict their ability to recruit and retain the workforce levels needed to continue with current production levels.

“A lack of available workers could also lead to an increase in wages as need outstrips supply; while positive for workers this may not be viable for certain companies.”

Simon Conington, founder of recruitment agency BPS World, agreed Brexit might have an adverse effect on attracting alent from abroad. “2017 is going to be a pivotal year for the UK economy,” he said. “The decisions the government makes now on the implementation of Brexit will affect our ability to attract the talent we need to grow.

“The impact will be felt immediately as talent will not come to the UK if they know they will have to leave within two years. We urge the government to continue to ensure we have access to skilled people, particularly in sectors where we’re already struggling to find the talent we need.”

Ann Francke, chief executive of the CMI, said businesses needed to invest in UK talent. “With the prime minister signalling today that the UK will make a clean break from the EU, it is inevitable that the number of foreign workers coming to the UK will fall after Brexit, so we need to invest heavily in homegrown talent now to ensure that we have the skilled workers capable of plugging the gaps,” she said.

Cheese said he hoped the government would listen to the views of employers when coming to a decision.

“If we are to use Brexit to deliver a global Britain as the prime minister wishes, then British business must be able to continue to attract and access global talent,” he said. “We would urge the government to engage properly with organisations and employer bodies to ensure that their views and needs are reflected in any deal that the prime minister seeks to negotiate.”

In the most important speech of her premiership so far, May also confirmed that existing worker rights deriving from Europe will be maintained and protected as they are fully enshrined in domestic law.

"This pledge ensures that no drastic changes are likely to be forthcoming, although it does not entirely remove the potential for future parliamentary amendments to existing laws," commented Price.

In her speech May also said the UK "cannot possibly" remain within the European single market, as staying would mean "not leaving the EU at all". She also committed to putting the final Brexit deal to a vote in parliament.