LONDON — Post-Brexit changes to immigration laws could significantly reduce UK businesses’ access to workers.
But one solution to a labour shortage could be “neglected workforces,” such as ex-offenders and the elderly.
According to George Koureas, who specialises in immigration law at Fragomen law firm, companies in the UK are “paralysed by uncertainty” about what post-Brexit agreements may look like, and are not yet planning for the changes, even if they have high numbers of foreign workers.
Businesses should start thinking now about how their workforces will be effected, since “in the blink of an eye we’ll be another four months down the line.” One thing employers could do, he says, is look at more “neglected workforces,” like ex-offenders, the elderly and unqualified school-leavers.
Lower skilled and lower paid jobs in particular are already starting to feel an immigration pinch, and the shortage of NHS nurses has been well reported. In the immediate months after Brexit, says Koureas, sectors like logistics and hospitality will be the ones that “really suffer,” and may struggle to source enough low-paid workers during peak times especially.
Although employers often squirm at the thought of hiring ex-offenders, they cannot legally turn someone down for a job if a conviction is spent — which happens after a set rehabilitation period — unless the job requires a criminal record check, and the check shows them to be unsuitable.
According to charity Unlock, over 10 million people in the UK have a criminal record. In 2016, 1.24 million offenders were sentenced across all courts, but more than half (54%) of these sentences were for motoring offences, and 74% of all sentences were fines.
Despite this, a YouGov poll of 1,849 companies found that half would not consider employing offenders or ex-offenders, and a further 12% were unsure. Only 7% said they currently employed either, although only 11% said they had received such applications and a further third were unsure.
Here’s how that looked:
The most common worry about employing offenders or ex-offenders was that they may be unreliable, followed by the concern that such a hiring policy could damage the public image of the business.
In a smaller survey of 1,291 employers, 58% said they thought very few comparable companies employed people from disadvantaged groups (including ex-offenders).
Nevertheless, a small number of companies, such as Virgin Trains, are actively running programmes to hire ex-offenders, and the government last year removed the criminal record disclosure section on initial job applications for most civil service jobs.
The cost of not hiring – money and manpower
In a letter to the Financial Times in 2011, Founder of the Virgin Group Sir Richard Branson said prisons held “a large number of potential superstars who get ignored by employers because of their criminal record.”
In 2012, 28% of all Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants, and 20% of all Income Support claimants were individuals with cautions or convictions (the total spend for the year across both benefits types was £11.83 billion). This group made up 22% of all out-of-work benefits claimants, although only 4% had been in prison.
In 2016, a Work and Pensions Committee report found that only about 26.5% of prisoners enter employment upon release, and that the average prison leaver spent “much longer on benefits than the average claimant of JSA.” However, of the nearly 68,000 individuals who entered prison in 2016, 71% had been convicted of a non-violent crime.
Here’s the chart of claimants:
“Currently, there is no clear strategy for how different agencies, in different prisons, should work together to achieve the common goal of getting ex offenders into work,” the report said. “Employers need to be encouraged to change their recruitment practices, and be given the support to do so.”
It suggested the government pilot a scheme to reduce national insurance contributions for employers actively employing ex-offenders, and that prisons be required to provide education and training courses.
The elderly could also help plug a labour shortage: earlier this year, PwC released a report saying more should be done to encourage people over the age of 55 to stay in work. It said “harnessing the economic power of older workers,” and women in particular, could boost the UK’s economy by £80 billion.
According to Koureas, the current conversation about workers and employment is missing more open communication channels between businesses, policy-makers and educators. These channels are needed in order to create a clear roadmap for the future, and for working out where new sources of workers are and how best to train them.
Employers and educators, he says, need to be supported and encouraged by policy-makers, while a two-way dialogue should inform policy. “That’s the missing gap,” he says.