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An industry in crisis, part two: Behind the headlines

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An industry in crisis, part two: Behind the headlines

As we wait to discover what a post-Brexit immigration policy will be, Vincent Wood analyses the likely outcomes of the Migration Advisory Committee report

Immigration reform has been high on the political agenda for the prime minister since her time in the Home Office, when she vowed to bring the number of people entering the country “down to the tens of thousands”. Now, without a special deal for the sector, hospitality may bear the brunt of this.

Steve Double, the Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay, has called for the industry to be considered in any new immigration policy. However, despite repeatedly bringing the question of what happens next to government, he is yet to receive a clear response.

“I’ve raised questions in the house,” he says. “I’ve had meetings with government ministers and all I’ve had until now is, ‘let’s wait for the Migration Advisory Committee [MAC] report; we’re listening, we’re considering all sectors’. Now we have the report and I am concerned about some of what it is recommending.”

The MAC report, released last month, set out a series of recommendations, particularly focusing on prioritising ‘high-skilled’ migrants over ‘low-skilled’. EU migrants can currently freely travel to work in Britain, but the report suggested only allowing people with Tier-2 visas into the country to work, which require a minimum level of qualification, an ability to speak English and a rate of pay of £30,000.

Naturally, this excludes many who would come to work in the sector and has long been an issue for sites that depend on labour from the rest of the world. In July, London’s Chinatown shut down in protest over what business owners claimed were immigration raids that harmfully targeted restaurants at their busiest points in service and led to the arrests of several staff members unable to gain visas.

The MAC report also calls for the ruling out of special deals for the majority of business sectors. Such deals would allow a sector to claim they need more workers and help them apply for an allotted number of visas reserved within the government’s quota. The only exceptions were short-term work allowances for young people, lasting two years, and seasonal allowances for fruit pickers and farm workers. The suggestions appear to have since been taken on by Theresa May and look set to become policy.

Double came out in support of Brexit before the referendum, and has called for immigration reforms, but argues the MAC’s recommendations could be damaging. He says: “I wholeheartedly agree with the government in terms of us putting in place a new immigration policy once we leave the EU and taking back control of our borders. However, we’ve got to make sure that any new immigration policy works for our economy as well.”

He is lobbying the government to ensure any new policy is introduced gradually, allowing the industry to react. “We know the hospitality sector relies very heavily on migrant labour and they are going to need time to readjust to any new policy. Therefore, I think it’s very important that there is a realistic transition time put in place once we leave the EU before any new policy takes effect, so that businesses have got time to readjust to the new regime,” Double says.

Sir Michael Fallon, a central part of May’s cabinet before he resigned in November last year, does not believe the new policy will be introduced as a short, sharp shock. He told The Caterer: “I think it will all be much slower than people originally feared – it’s not going to be something that happens in April or perhaps not even by the end of the transition period.

“The transition period itself seems to now be in doubt whether that will be finished by December 2020. So this is going to be a slow change, and it needs to be. The last thing we want is people either being forced to leave or dissuaded from coming because they’re not clear about what the final status will be.”

However, May’s government has struggled to placate voices in her party with strongly anti-immigration stances – many of whom will be unnerved by the idea of a more open immigration policy running any longer beyond the Brexit transition period than necessary. The Liberal Democrat’s work and pensions spokesman, Stephen Lloyd, says “no one knows at the minute” what will happen next when it comes to Brexit and the nation’s borders, as the PM seeks to gain support across the political divide.

Speaking of the government, he adds: “I hope that they will be pragmatic rather than ideological. I understand that a reason lots of people voted leave was around immigration. I understand that, I respect that, but I also understand that we want to be very careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“My advice to the government is to be pragmatic, to listen to the industry and to be flexible for a period after Brexit until we see how the industry is settling down. If the government is going to do what all the hard Brexiters want – be completely rigid – I fear that could be disastrous for the industry.”

So why doesn’t the government seem to take heed of the clear and impending threat to the industry? Lloyd says it comes down to a quote from former US president Lyndon B Johnson: “If I have them by the balls, then their hearts and minds follow.”

“Democratic politics is about push-pull,” Lloyd explains. “That means that you push the government and you pull the government and you make enough noise for government, whoever they are, so they understand your problems. If you don’t, you will not be heard.”


Possible outcomes

Option one: the Chequers deal

If Theresa May gets her way, and her deal, immigration could be part of transition agreements as the PM’s immigration policy is phased in and free movement is phased out. This will mean free movement continues until at least 2022, when the transition period is expected to end.

Option two: no deal

If no deal is struck, the government will be free to make any immigration policy it wants. This could mean pulling up the drawbridge straight away and curbing EU migration, or the slower transitioned policy preferred by business. However, if the UK introduces harsh new rules, the EU is likely to reciprocate.

Option three: migrant deal

Theresa May has ruled out making migration part of her deal with Europe, however, allowing allotted numbers of migrants from certain sectors regularly comes into play when free trade agreements are struck – and will likely come up as talks progress during, and after, the Brexit process.

An industry in crisis, part one: Why are we sleepwalking into a staffing catastrophe? >>

An industry in crisis, part three: What the operators say >>

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