The government is conducting an EU-citizen registration trial ahead of Brexit. Here are practical steps employers can take to prepare for this and the challenges Brexit will pose for HR professionals.
At the time of writing, the government is about to roll out a Brexit registration trial, which will enable EU citizens residing in the UK to formalise their residence status.
The trial will initially run across three Liverpool universities and 12 NHS trusts in the north of England. The government is looking for around 4,000 EU citizens to complete the process.
The point of the trial-run is to try to smooth any bumps in the process before it is formally rolled out and to identify any issues with applications, the provision of supporting information and ensuring staff at UK Visas and Immigration are appropriately trained and ready to manage the new system once it goes live.
Although the UK is set to leave the EU on 19 March 2019, free movement of workers will not formally end until the transition period concludes on 30 December 2020, with all EU citizens being required to register some six months later by 30 June 2021. The UK government has yet to outline its plans for what system will replace free movement.
What is ‘settled-status’?
Under the current law, EU citizens can obtain indefinite leave to remain, also sometimes called permanent residence, after five years of living in the UK, as long as they don’t leave the UK for more than two years consecutively.
Once the new system is rolled out, EU nationals who have five years qualifying UK residence by 31 December 2020 will be eligible to apply for settled status. Subject to criminality and security checks, this new status will be granted to all qualifying applicants.
EU nationals who arrive before the start of the implementation period on 19 March 2019 but do not have five years qualifying residence by 31 December 2020 will be able to apply for ‘pre-settled’ status, but will then also be able to apply for settled status once they achieve five years residence. Again they will be subject to criminality and security checks.
Individuals arriving in the UK during the implementation period of 19 March 2019 - 31 December 2020 will be required to register if they stay for more than three months. They will then also be able to apply for ‘pre-settled status’ to enable them to acquire the five years residence allowing them to apply to upgrade their application to settled status.
Anybody arriving on or after 1 January 2021 will be subject to whatever system the government decides to implement from that date.
At the moment, we don’t know how that will look. However, there are likely to be calls from business leaders to implement something akin to free movement for certain industries or skill sets – the NHS/ medicine and care being an obvious area which is likely to continue to need to rely upon foreign talent beyond the end of the implementation period and Brexit.
How can HR play its part?
Any businesses employing EU workers would be wise to consider the steps they can take to support their staff as Brexit slowly works its way into reality.
Supporting employees through the settled status process
One consideration is helping staff through the process of obtaining or working towards settled status.
If requested, employers should make personal information easy and quick to access – details such as start dates and proof of employment may be necessary for employees to start their journey towards formalising their residence status.
Consider providing inducements
It is also worthwhile considering that some EU citizens may feel less welcome in the UK as a result of the Brexit vote. For employers heavily reliant upon EU staff, or for those with EU citizens in vital operational roles, it may be sensible to think more broadly about what can be done to try to ensure individuals don’t move on.
Employers may want to consider inducing staff with improved benefits such as increased holiday, improved flexible working policies or childcare vouchers.
The roll-out of the trial registration process for EU citizens shows that the government is serious about its post-Brexit immigration strategy.
In addition, or as an alternative to inducements, employers may also want to consider how they can upskill existing employees, in order to seek to future-proof their businesses.
On the job training can provide improved opportunities for keen-to-learn employees, with the added bonus for employers of a highly trained workforce.
Of course, detailed legal and accountancy advice should be taken before making changes to employment contracts or applying in-work benefits.
Bring forward recruitment plans
Inducements or training will not be appropriate or even a possibility for some businesses, and these may find their forecasts showing a need for additional labour in the future. If these are roles typically filled by EU citizens, it may be wise to consider whether they can be filled pre-Brexit.
To this end, some employers relying upon EU workers are struggling to fill positions even pre-Brexit, with a recent City & Guilds survey revealing that nine in ten employers already find it difficult to recruit the skilled staff they need.
The same survey indicated that two thirds of employers surveyed believe that the skills gap will worsen or remain the same over the following three to five years.
Accordingly, and although an additional cost in the immediate term, forward-thinking businesses may want to consider seeking to fill these roles now. Whilst there’s no guarantee, recruiting sooner rather than later may help to lessen the effect of the skills shortage once the UK leaves the EU and the transition period ends.
Preparation, preparation, preparation
The roll-out of the trial registration process for EU citizens shows that the government is serious about its post-Brexit immigration strategy. Despite warnings from a wide range of industries, sectors and large employers, it appears bound to ending the free movement of workers.
Whilst this potentially signals trouble for employers relying upon EU workers, with a bit of planning, there are steps that businesses can take to both help and support existing EU worker employees, whilst at the same time seek to protect their business over the longer term.
Interested in this topic? You may also want to read The Brexit White Paper: what does it mean for immigration and employment?