CBI head calls for UK visa overhaul

Changes to the post-Brexit immigration system are being demanded by the head of the UK's largest business organisation.

Lord Karan Bilimoria, Chairman, Cobra Beer Partnership, UK

Lord Karan Bilimoria. Image copyright Richter Frank-Jurgen. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Lord Bilimoria, president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), says the government should immediately update the Shortage Occupations List to protect the competitiveness of the UK's post-pandemic, economic recovery.And in a speech to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s (REC) annual conference, he called for immigration and education policies to be aligned to help workers gain skills that are needed for shortage roles.“As the weeks go by, more and more businesses are re-opening. It’s fantastic," said Lord Bilimoria. “But as lockdown restrictions lift, we’re also seeing a surge in the demand for labour - and we know many businesses are already struggling to recruit.“The latest REC/KPMG report shows overall candidate availability during the past quarter declined at its quickest rate since 2017.“It’s a big challenge, not just for individual businesses, who can’t find the people they need, but also for our longer-term economic recovery."The cross-bench peer - the founder of the Cobra Beer empire - said the UK was facing "a perfect storm of factors" with many overseas workers returning home during the pandemic, hitting the UK’s hospitality, logistics and food processing industries particularly hard.And now, he said, the new, points-based immigration system was posing a barrier to hiring foreign workers to replace those who had left."Meanwhile," he continued, "Covid has added major uncertainty. With some sectors locked down longer than others, experienced workers have moved to businesses that stayed open. Other people are understandably wary of changing jobs right now.“Together, all these factors pose a problem. Whether that’s in hospitality, where the shortage of chefs – already a problem pre-pandemic – is now even more acute; or transport, where hauliers are desperately searching for more drivers; or in food and drink, where a leading food supplier told us they’ve seen EU workers leaving during the pandemic.“And, of course, on top of all this, the UK’s long-standing skills shortages haven’t gone away.”Lord Bilimoria said businesses must first help themselves by taking such steps as investing in innovation and technology, increasing apprenticeship schemes, and widening the talent pool by hiring more from minority groups.But, he added, there were two "two big things" the government could do immediately to get the nation's economic recovery on the right track.“First – we need government to immediately update the Shortage Occupation List," he said. “Last September, the Migration Advisory Committee recommended that we add certain roles to that list - butchers, bricklayers and welders, for example.“Today, almost a year on, we worry those are exactly the same sectors facing shortages now."
He said that businesses would welcome a commitment by ministers to review the list annually, to keep it responsive to the ebb and flow of skill demands across the whole of the UK’s economy.“And where there are clear, evidenced labour shortages, businesses should be able to hire from overseas," he added.Secondly, Lord Bilimoria urged a coordination between immigration and skills policies by using the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and the National Skills Fund to help workers gain skills for jobs on the Shortage Occupations List.“Together, these measures could begin to ease the most immediate labour shortages holding firms back, as well as laying the groundwork for a competitive UK economy in the decade to come," he concluded.

Read more news and views from David Sapsted.

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