Why will the government not exempt construction trades from the new points-based system, asks Gleeds’ Richard Steer

richard steer BW

Around the time of the recent Tory Party conference, the Sunday Times published a profile of the home secretary, Priti Patel. A surprise appointment at the Home Office, Patel is known as an ardent Brexiteer who had been sacked from previous ministerial office by the then prime minister, Theresa May. Patel made it clear in the article that, having got the job, her modus operandi was going to be a hardball approach to immigration. On claims of her bullying officials in pursuit of that aim, she is reported as having said that she is not in her role to be liked, she is there to get things done.

Sadly, her zeal to curb immigration could seriously impact upon the prime minister’s pledge to build, build, build - a key element of the recovery plan for our emergence from the pandemic recession and something on which he has staked his personal reputation.

According to the Home Office, advice from the Migration Advisory Committee was based on illusory data and many of the roles could be filled by home grown talent

It has been reported that the home secretary recently rejected a recommendation from the government’s independent advisor that key construction trades be included on the UK’s shortage occupation list (SOL). Inclusion on the SOL would have made it easier for migrants to apply for work visas to fill vacancies in the sector.

The Migration Advisory Committee was commissioned to consider what medium-skill occupations should be included, ahead of the introduction of a points-based immigration system on 1 January 2021. These are people like bricklayers, plasterers, masons, and welders. Vital trades at the heart of the construction process.

According to the Home Office, advice from the Migration Advisory Committee that construction trades should have some form of exemption was based on illusory data and many of the roles could be filled by home grown talent.

That is a bit like asking your doctor for advice on a nasty persistent cough, a raging temperature, and a lack of smell and taste. When they confirm you have coronavirus you respond by saying that you have consulted Google, have your own views, and that the GP clearly doesn’t know what they are talking about so you intend to hop on the next bus to work regardless.

To give you some idea of the reliance we currently have on skilled labour from abroad, according to ONS data there were around 165,000 EU nationals working in UK construction in July 2018, equivalent to 7% of the workforce. This is above average for the UK economy as a whole and the picture for London, which is the UK’s dominant construction market, accounting for a fifth of output, is even more reliant. In the capital, 28% of workers were EU nationals. Likewise, certain industry sub-sectors, such as the construction of buildings, show a disproportionate reliance upon EU labour.

Eve Livett, chief executive officer of the Association of Brickwork Contractors, said that there are large London-based bricklaying companies where 80% of the workforce are EU nationals. Where are we going to find an experienced labour force of this magnitude capable of doing the work now?

The Home Office says that the industry should fill the gaps from within, as Boris Johnson talks up his plans to overhaul the training, skills and apprenticeship system to encourage more young people into practical careers in construction. Certainly, something needs to be done. The first three quarters of the 2019/20 academic year saw around 43,000 fewer apprenticeship starts than the previous year. Compounding the issue, there has been a further fall during the pandemic, with 60% less starts in May 2020 than in the same month in 2019. The picture in construction is particularly bleak. The number of apprentices going into construction is falling well short of the 31,600 workers needed each year to keep up with existing demand.

This government’s track record when it comes to listening to the views of experts from the construction industry is appalling, we were ignored throughout the Brexit process, however if the prime minister is to build his way out of covid, perhaps it’s time he and his home secretary start taking heed of those they employ to advise them.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide