Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

U.K. Business Seeks Labour’s Help to Make Case for Immigration

  • CBI, BCC find common ground with Labour as Brexit approaches
  • Companies want guaranteed rights for EU citizens in Britain

The U.K.’s biggest business lobbies are seeking the help of the opposition Labour Party to make a positive case for immigration as Britain prepares to pull out of the European Union.

The Confederation of British Industry and the British Chamber of Commerce have urged Labour to put pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to guarantee that EU citizens can remain after Brexit, according to two party officials with knowledge of the discussions. Businesses are also anxious that they maintain access to skilled and unskilled workers from the continent, the officials said.

May has been accused of making EU workers bargaining chips in the coming Brexit negotiations by refusing to guarantee their right to carry on living in the U.K. unless there is a reciprocal deal for Britons living in other European countries. At the same time, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has floated a range of proposals for reining in immigration, triggering a backlash from business. 

May’s hard line on immigration threatens to dent the Tories’ reputation as the party of business while giving Labour and companies some common ground. That may go some way to help bridge the divide that opened up as Labour moved to the political left under Ed Miliband and now Jeremy Corbyn.

“We’ll work with anyone and we speak with politicians of all stripes all of the time,” the BCC said in a statement. A spokesman confirmed the organization has had meetings with Labour officials, and that there is “common ground” on immigration issues, including student visas and the rights of EU nationals.

“The CBI is committed to working with politicians of all parties to make the best of Brexit,” the business lobby’s Director for People and Skills Neil Carberry said in a statement.

Workers Needed

Industries from construction and hospitality have become dependent on foreign workers since the EU opened its doors to former communist nations of eastern Europe in 2004. Net migration to the U.K. is currently running at more than 300,000 a year.

Research from University College London found that people who moved to the U.K. this century contributed 20 billion pounds ($25 billion) to the public finances between 2001 and 2011, and the Office for Budget Responsibility on Wednesday estimated that lower immigration resulting from the Brexit vote will add 16 billion pounds to government borrowing over the next five years.

One of the Labour officials said that the party’s focus is to emphasize the benefits immigration brings to the U.K., with migrants filling staffing gaps in the National Health Service, as well as taking both skilled and unskilled work where there’s a shortage of domestic candidates. Labour has already led a debate in Parliament on the rights of EU workers and will continue to press the case, the person said.

May has said the referendum result was a backlash against unfettered immigration, and Rudd last month reaffirmed a commitment to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year. She proposed that companies should report the proportion of their workforce that is foreign-born and said banks and landlords may be punished for failing to make checks on foreigners doing business with them.

London Visas

Rudd said she would be consulting “shortly” on proposals to control immigration, though the Home Office has yet to set a date. A spokeswoman for the Home Office didn’t reply to a request on the timing of the paper.

Businesses are making their own proposals to soften the government’s stance. Earlier this month, the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry proposed granting visas to EU nationals in the capital to prevent post-Brexit migration curbs leading to a shortage of workers. The CBI’s Carberry acknowledged the need for the government to respond to “clearly-stated public concerns” about immigration, while warning about the dangers of “red tape.”

“As the government negotiates a new relationship with Europe, access to key people from abroad will be vital,” Carberry said.