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Find positive message or miss out on talent post-Brexit, says minister


7 min read

Britain will lose out on skilled labour after Brexit unless politicians can find a “positive narrative” about the country’s direction and values, a minister has said.

Rory Stewart said Britain must find a “confident story” about the future in order to continue to attract the best talent from around the world after the UK leaves the European Union.

The Foreign Office Minister called for an end to focussing on the problems with Brexit towards identifying the opportunities that present themselves from leaving the European Union.

Mr Stewart was speaking during a Bright Blue fringe event at Conservative party conference titled ‘Getting the talent we need’, partnered with Ernst & Young, earmarked to discuss immigration policy as the UK departs the European Union.

He was joined by fellow panellists, Jonathan Portes, economics professor at King’s College London, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, Margaret Burton, partner at Ernst & Young and Seamus Nevin, head of policy research at the Institute of Directors.

Mr Stewart, who moved to the United States for work before becoming an MP, said people relocate overseas based around their perception of the country they are travelling to.

“It’s important to understand that the primary things that in the end will bring people here, are whether they believe in Britain in the same way that I believe in the United States,” he said. 

“Do they feel this is a place where there are fantastic work opportunities? Is this an environment in which they wish to work? Does the standard of living appeal to them? All these things will I suspect in the end prove to be what determines whether somebody is prepared to go forward for a work permit.”

Mr Stewart, who is also a minister in the Department for International Development, said Britain must reconnect with the country’s values to ensure it produces world leading companies and talent.

“I actually feel that there is a real challenge in Britain, we can call it different things, we can call it a challenge in innovation, we can call it a challenge in management, but there is basically some kind of issue in the end, however well King’s College London or Cambridge are performing in the international rankings, how many Nobel prizes we’re getting, we’re not producing the Googles, the Amazons, the Facebooks,” he said.

“There really isn’t a sense in Britain that if you’re really looking for the most exciting developments in the commercial field that you come here instead of California. And I’m not sure how good our management really is and I’m certainly not sure how good the innovation in business really is.”

He added: “To resolve these issues… we need a confident story about Britain. We need to find the way of reconciling ourselves to what is good about this country, along with all of the mystery which we’ve generated today, along all the things that we can see are problematic, we need to find a way of empathising, of acknowledging there are cultural problems, acknowledging there are problems with immigration, acknowledging there are problems with Brexit.

“But we need to move on to find those opportunities. We can’t keep saying… ‘yes there may be opportunities for Brexit but I’m going to tell you about how difficult it is going to be again’.

“Unless we can find some sort of positive narrative, we’re not going to be able to attract the dentists, we’re not going to be able to reconcile ourselves with our own internal communities, and we’re not going to be able to mobilise the British people beyond what is currently a very sterile conversation about incomes, wages and equality, towards the broader definition of the values in this country and our lives.”


During the hour-long discussion, panellists were invited to set out their view on what Britain’s future immigration policy should look like after the UK has left the European Union.

Margaret Burton, who is head of EY’s UK immigration team, called for a broader-based system that focuses on enticing talent to move to Britain, as opposed to prioritising controlling borders.

“We are in competition with the world for international talent, and we cannot afford to have an immigration system, or continue with an immigration system, that places so much emphasis on control and enforcement,” she said.

Ms Burton said officials should consider looking at a “wider choice” of visa for those from different sectors, such as agriculture and health. In reference to the Government’s target of bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands, she called for an end to viewing immigration policy as a “numbers game”.

In her concluding remarks, Ms Burton said there must be an integrated approach to education, training and immigration in Britain to ensure the right talent is found from overseas.

“If we continue to make immigration policy in isolation and focusing purely on numbers such as we have already been doing in the last few years, we will end up with the wrong talent and immigration policy overall,” she concluded.

Ms O’Grady said before a new policy is implemented, ministers should make sure they have “dealt with the route course of people’s concerns” about immigration.

“From our perspective, the answer to this problem is not blaming migrant workers, but is dealing with the exploitation that they and indeed local workers often face,” she said,

“It’s a rights-based approach, cracking down on exploitation, cracking down on the Sports Direct boss, who treated his workers pretty appallingly, or those employers who are not even paying their workers the national minimum wage.

“It’s finding ways to do that, not necessarily primary legislation, it can be about strengthening the unions too, because we have, all of us, civic society has a key role to play.”

Like Prof Portes and Mr Nevin from the IoD, Ms O’Grady lamented that the Government had failed to give a unilateral assurance to EU nationals living in Britain that their rights would not change post-Brexit.

The TUC general secretary suggested the Government’s current approach was damaging Britain’s reputation overseas.

“We have to think about will people want to come [to Britain]?” she asked.

“I’ve spent a fair bit of time like others in the rest of Europe, and I am worried about the reputation of Britain at the moment, because it’s looking like not a very welcome place to migrants who we need if we’re not going to suffer the skill shortages that will hold back the growth that we desperately need in order to generate the wealth for our public services and so on.”

In conclusion, Ms O’Grady cited the threat of a hard border in Northern Ireland as evidence for why the Government should not rule out maintaining membership of the single market and customs union.

“I still don’t understand how the circle will be squared in respect of the stated intent to leave the single market and customs union, and the same stated intent that there will be no return to the hard border in Northern Ireland,” she said.

“We’ve been told no infrastructure, not a single CCTV camera. How on earth do we control our border, how on earth do we ensure that we don’t hit the economy either of the north or of the south, how do we ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is protected, which includes not just a piece of paper, but young people from both communities having good jobs. Because that, in my experience, is an essential foundation for peace.

“That’s one reason why I think it’s so important, at this stage of the negotiations, we keep all options on the table and keep focus on the results that we want to achieve and find the model that will deliver them without boxing ourselves in or ruling anything out.”

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