Last Friday the Immigration Rules in the UK changed. This is not a rare occurrence. There have been more than 40 statement of changes issued since 2011 when Theresa May was in charge of reducing net migration. But this change is significant. It signals a softening of the immigration rules for non-EU citizens at the same time as the UK must begin to set out plans for a future immigration from within the EU.

The widely welcomed changes will see doctors and nurses removed from the Tier 2 cap – the annual limit on the number of skilled workers employers can sponsor to work in the UK. It is estimated that removing these two groups will free up nearly a third of the 20,700 visas for other skills that businesses across the economy, including retail, are in critical need of. Changes have also been made to the Tier 1 visa to support leading fashion designers come to the UK without the need to be sponsored.

What does this tell us about the government’s position on immigration policy? Firstly, it reveals change. Pressure to increase the cap, or even ditch the net migration target, was piled on Theresa May when the cap was hit for the first time in 2015 and again on her successor Amber Rudd in 2017. Despite Rudd’s attempts to shift the tone on immigration policy, she was unable to convince the May in the way that Sajid Javid has done in just 7 weeks. Secondly, it is a relaxing of the UK’s stance on immigration from outside the EEA. The changes to Tier 2 will effectively allow a greater number of skilled workers come to the UK and fill critical skills gaps.

In the context of Brexit, this can be read in two ways. The first, as a move towards a new global Britain, open to the brightest and best beyond the EU. The second, that the government is finally listening to employers’ concerns about skills shortages and the need for overseas labour. If it’s the latter our spirits should be lifted about the potential for a demand-led immigration system once the UK leaves the EU.

We know that colleagues from the EU play a key role in the retail industry. The 170,000 colleagues currently employed in retail work across the industry from head offices to the shop floor and everywhere in between. We also know that across the food and drink supply chain EU citizens are critical to what UK consumers eat and drink. That’s why the BRC have been calling for a demand-led immigration system following Brexit. A system that allows employers to recruit individuals from outside the UK when they can’t find the right mix of skills and experience here. That system also needs to put simplicity, speed and low cost at the heart of it to allow retailers to manage peaks in consumer demand.

In September the Migration Advisory Committee is due to publish a report advising the government on how the UK’s immigration system should be aligned with a modern industrial strategy – i.e. how the system can support the productivity and earning power of people across the UK. Maintaining access to labour and skills for the retail industry, the largest private sector employer, and its supply chains must sit at the heart of this.

So, while the changes to the immigration system for non-EEA nationals are welcome, the government must turn their attention to the system post EU-exit and work with industries such as retail to create a demand-led system that has public support rather than set arbitrary targets and caps. 

By Fionnuala Horrocks-Burns, Employement and Skills Policy Advisor - BRC.