Jessica Fino 4 Oct 2018 10:24am

Business baulks at May's immigration plans

Theresa May closed the Conservative Party conference by calling for unity over Brexit in a business-friendly speech

Caption: The prime minister entered the stage for her speech dancing to Abba’s Dancing Queen

The prime minister told her party in Birmingham yesterday that “there are better days ahead”, announced the “end of austerity” and described her Brexit plan as a “free trade deal that provides for frictionless trade in goods”.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, however, criticised the post-Brexit immigration policy May proposed this week – which would prioritise high-skilled workers and treat European Union citizens as the same as those from elsewhere - saying it was a “wrong turn”.

“The UK economy needs workers at all skill levels. A one-size-fits-all global system ignores the need for migration to be on the table for trade deals and binds small firms in unmanageable red tape,” she said.

Still, Fairbairn welcomed May’s resistance of the “fiction” that a Canada-style deal would work for jobs.

“Now politicians should support her to get a deal – and the critical withdrawal agreement – over the line,” she added.

However the British Chambers of Commerce warned that “warm words are not enough”, and called for “concrete measures in the Budget and beyond to fix the fundamentals [in the UK], and underpin future competitiveness, productivity, and prosperity”.

The group also criticised the government’s immigration plan, pointing out that businesses face record high skills shortages at all levels.

“Immigration policy cannot be just about the best and brightest – companies must be able to access the skills and talent they require if they are unable to train or hire in the UK.

“There are skills shortages in every sector across the country, and the prime minister’s proposed approach risks hurting industries such as care, hospitality, retail, and agriculture.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Martin, director general of the Institute of Directors, said May was “absolutely right to swear by businesses, rather than at them”.

Martin said it was reassuring to hear May deliver a speech that “pinned principles of free markets and enterprise to its mast”.

He added, “But firms will inevitably ask, where are the big-ticket, tangible items that will enable them to cut through the political fog? Business leaders will hope Theresa May is teeing up the chancellor to drive the ball down the fairway at the Budget with positive changes.”

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) also raised concerns on immigration.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said any proposed policy should be demand-led and based on the economy's needs rather than “arbitrarily drawing a line based on salaries or skills”.

She warned that time is running out for the government and the EU to secure frictionless trade, which will be essential to ensure UK consumers continue to have access to the wide choice of products they are used to, at competitive prices.