The UK’s separation from the European Union will have any number of implications for Human Resource teams across the country. Immigration is only one consideration but is a reasonably big one, particularly with EU employees worrying about whether they will be told to leave the country.
Understandably my clients have lots of questions at a practical and legal level. The best way to respond to them, especially while everything is still so uncertain, is in the four following headings.
Reassuring your employees
It isn’t clear whether EU nationals will be told to leave the UK when separation happens and nor is it clear whether British people in Europe will need to come home.
This is what I tell people:
- It is unlikely that the government will tell EU nationals to go home but there can be no guarantees just yet.
- We do know that Mark Sedwill, the Permanent Secretary in charge of the Home Office, has said that those with permanent residence rights should be allowed to stay.
- EU nationals can normally apply for a Permanent Residence Card (PRC) after they’ve lived in the UK for five years so long as they meet certain criteria, for instance a clean criminal record. There is no legal obligation to apply for the PRC and the vast majority of EU nationals don’t bother. I am finding, though, that many are finding a lot of comfort in holding one, since the referendum.
- They can also apply for British citizenship if they have a PRC, although they normally need to have lived here for six years. They also need to be of good character and meet a number of other relatively straight forward requirements. Again, this is not mandatory but could help people feel more secure.
What do you do with this information? We have been helping clients in any number of ways. You can hold one to one briefings with (normally very senior) staff, explain it in intranet postings or hold webcasts, employee roadshows, surgeries or town hall meetings. The point is to proactively make the information available to everyone, rather than waiting for queue to form outside your door.
You should assume free movement will end
We don’t know if it will, it just seems unlikely that having lost the election on immigration the government would continue to offer EU nationals unfettered access to the UK and our labour market.
If free movement does end:
- New people entering the UK to work will probably need a visa or sponsorship to prove their ability to work.
- People already living here will need some sort of document to evidence their lawful status, possibly through a new registration system.
- Employers will probably need to know that their employees have evidence of this for all EU employees, just as they do under current right to work law.
Know who your EU employees are
All of this will become clear in time, for now the trick is to do as much as you can to be ready for it.
I have been advising clients to pull data on their EU workers. The chances are that, at some point, you will need to check those EU workers have the right to work. Otherwise, if a registration scheme comes in how will you know who will need to be registered?
You will also want to know what jobs they were doing. At the moment the immigration system is calibrated to degree level jobs. If free movement goes you’ll want to know which of the jobs you are filling with EU nationals to help plan your workforce. This raises lots of questions, some pretty fundamental:
- Which of the roles will you recruit for locally and what (if any) training or other infrastructure would be needed to develop British workers?
- For which roles will you need to continue filling from overseas?
- Are they on the government’s list of degree level jobs that qualify for visas?
- Will you need to try and convince the government to change policy and allow those workers in?
Do not trust your data
You might think it is too early to run reports on your EU workforce, especially if you have a reasonable turnover of staff. Even so, now will be the right time to audit your records.
In the weeks since Brexit I have been struck by how many companies struggle to pull data on EU nationals from their systems. The biggest issue, it seems, is that their databases use British as a default nationality. They change it for non-EU nationals but often forget for Europeans employees. The result? They don’t know who they are.
I thoroughly recommend you check your system. This might not be an issue – you’re systems may be spot on – but I would sooner find out now than after the Home Office hurriedly rushes out any new policy.
Ian Robinson is a Partner with Fragomen Worldwide.
Ian can be contacted at IRobinson@Fragomen.com
if you would like immigration advice on how to plan for Brexit.