Business

It’s time for a grown-up conversation about immigration

Business has been well served by immigration, but even before the word Brexit had worked its way into daily use, it was clear the wider public has a less rosy view of untrammelled free movement.

As negotiations have progressed, sectors as varied as healthcare, fruit-picking, hospitality and banking have pressed their own special cases, to ensure the UK retains access to the “brightest and best”, as well as allowing companies to adequately fill the jobs they have.

Put simply, the UKs economy is not just built by Oxbridge-educated whizz kids – and our immigration policy needs to recognise that.

But fighting public opinion – and a Prime Minister who has been trenchant on this point since her time in the Home Office – is a war that business will almost certainly lose. Its clear a pragmatic approach is needed.

So the CBIs new report, published ahead of the Migration Advisory Committees assessment of what the UKs post-Brexit immigration needs will be, is to be welcomed.

Instead of trying to replicate the status quo, it calls for a reform of the non-EU immigration system so the country can attract people from around the world.

This is something many Brexiters – and thankfully the new home secretary Sajid Javid – are keen to implement. Without it, any pretence that the country can become Global Britain will die.

The CBI also recognises that freedom of movement will end, and calls for a new controlled system for EU workers. Crucially, instead of pulling up the drawbridge it makes sensible suggestions such as a three-month restriction for those coming to the UK unless they can prove they are working, studying or are self-sufficient.

And instead of fixating on targets, it calls for the government to identify and invest in local services that are under pressure because of high migrant numbers.

This last issue is key. Arbitrary numbers might sound good when politicians are talking tough, but they have no place in a fluctuating economy, not least one grappling with a fundamental shift in its demographics.

Some of the recommendations should be straightforward: travel arrangements for citizens and businesses must reflect the interconnected nature of 21st century business, not just between the EU and UK but the rest of the world, too.

Others will take time to bed in. Trust in the system will not be rebuilt overnight.

But the UK desperately needs to have a rational and detailed conversation about migration – and time is running out.