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20 August 2019

The View from the Chair, Tina McKenzie - August 2019

Clarity on EU citizens vital for success of local economy

Less than a third of the EU nationals currently in the UK have had settlement or pre-settlement applications approved by the government to date. This is the scheme to enable those currently living here to obtain UK immigration status, post-Brexit. Although the government has made commitments regarding the EU citizens already here, for some reason - perhaps through lack of information, lower earnings due to a weakening of sterling, or feeling they are no longer welcome - many are not taking up the option of applying to continue to live here. EU citizens make a valuable contribution to our economy and society, and one in five small businesses employ someone from elsewhere in Europe. In sectors such as care and hospitality their contribution is absolutely vital to the continued success of these industries. Therefore, ahead of the Brexit deadline on October 31, the UK government should increase public awareness to ensure that all steps are taken to contact the EU nationals here, advising and informing them about the actions they have to take if they wish to remain. We must ensure we reach those who are not digitally engaged, utilising all forms of media and direct mail if necessary, because business quite simply cannot afford to lose this workforce.

Separate from the rights of EU citizens already living here, the future migration policy of the UK government after Brexit remains unclear. A question arises as to whether the current administration is wedded to the proposals that were set out in the Migration White Paper, which is currently undergoing consultation. Those proposals were based on research from the Home Office’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which recommended that workers from the EU or EEA would receive no preferential treatment and that, in most cases, new migrant workers would have to be paid a salary of at least £30,000 to be able to come here to work. FSB argued that these proposals were not at all suitable for the needs of the Northern Ireland economy, particularly given that our private sector median salary is just £24,000 - well below the salary threshold proposed. When I raised this issue with the previous Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, he assured us that he had tasked the MAC to re-evaluate these proposals given the particular context of Northern Ireland. The MAC are coming to Northern Ireland in early September and we are encouraging businesses to engage with them to outline the practical implications of their proposals.

While there have been many illustrations regarding the impact that No-Deal would have on transit of goods and supplies of essential items, less has been said about what it would mean for people. It was initially envisaged that the future migration policy would have effect following the end of the proposed transition period in January 2021, as included in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, however that proposal assumed that a Deal had been agreed. It has been suggested that the government will seek to end freedom of movement on day one of a No-Deal Brexit. Such a drastic and immediate change, without any certainty about what would follow, could be just as negative for business as the sudden introduction of tariffs and additional checks and controls, which are also associated with a No-Deal outcome.

However, ending freedom of movement on 1 November would also impact the EU citizens still here who have not yet had Settled Status applications approved. For example, if they leave the UK for a holiday and return, how could they be distinguished from EU nationals who travel here after 1 November? It is this lack of clarity regarding No-Deal, whether that be in relation to trade or migration, which is causing so much difficulty for small businesses to adequately plan and prepare. As a matter of the utmost priority the new administration must clarify whether it stands by the migration proposals brought forward during Theresa May’s tenure as PM, and outline its immediate migration policy if we end up leaving the European Union with No-Deal.

In attempting to navigate these issues in one of the areas in the front line of changes, FSB and Newry Chamber of Commerce, along with other colleagues in Newry BID and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, will be holding an event on 19 September which will seek to provide some answers on business issues, including those related to Brexit. While it may be impossible to fully mitigate against the harmful impact of No-Deal it is vital that businesses are as well informed as possible about what they can do to plan for all eventualities.