Public sector workforce ‘already feeling Brexit strain’

4 Apr 17

Brexit is already having a profound effect on the recruitment and retention of public service workers, according to leading economist Jonathan Portes.

CIPFA Brexit debate

Panellists discuss the impact of Brexit on the public sector Photo: CIPFA

Today during a debate on the impact of Brexit on public services, Portes, who is professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, warned that the country’s decision to leave the EU could lead to a further concentration of skilled migrants in London. His concerns were echoed by Saffron Cordery, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, another speaker at the debate.

Both said any restrictions on recruiting from the EU could cause a vacuuming effect on other parts of the UK, as employers target current residents.

On the topic of what Brexit means for different regions of the UK, Cordery said it could “suck the workforce” into London and the South East from areas such Cumbria, Lincoln and Cornwall where there are recruitment issues.

Speaking at the event hosted by CIPFA, Portes, said before the dust settles on potential regulatory and tax changes, the impact of Brexit was already being felt in the public sector.

“The NHS is already experiencing impact in terms of recruitment and its ability to recruit from outside the UK,” he said.

He noted that the UK’s public sector was, on average, slightly less dependent on European Economic Area nationals than the private sector. EU workers make up around 5% of the workforce in public services compared to 7% in the overall UK workforce.

But Portes warned that although the one in 20 figure doesn’t seem high, the figures were much higher among new recruits, in particular in the social care sector.

He said since government clamped down on non-EU workers in the last decade the social care sector has relied much more on EEA nationals.

According to Portes, Brexit is also having a psychological effect on migrant workers’ desire to stay in or come to the UK.

He said: “For better or worse, the UK is a less welcoming place for people from elsewhere in the EU and that its not just a pure psychological impact, it is about people’s future security.

“People know that even while their status is currently unchanged, it will change in the future.

“That makes recruitment more difficult and it will be more difficult to hang onto people already here”.

Portes urged employers in the public sector to reassure their EU-born employees that they will support and vouch for them.

He also called for the “expensive and cumbersome” system used to handle migrants from outside the EU to be sidelined and a more “flexible and responsive” system introduced once free movement comes to an end.

Cordery, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, reinforced Portes’s concerns. She said: “We know that the supply of high quality workforce in the UK, in the health service and social care service is very challenged at the moment.

“We need to think how we are going to support the current EU workforce post-Brexit, it is already having a massive impact on future recruitment and current retention.

“One in 20 might not sound like many but when you are already talking about substantial staff shortages, not being able to fill rotas, when you already having to use expensive agency staff to make sure you have enough staff to run a service safely then you need to think (if it is sensible) to add complexity.”

She added that EU nationals working in the public sector need to be assured they are welcome and they are not left in the dark about what the future holds.

Cordery urged Brexit negotiators to deliver a future migrant policy which is “simple and meets our [public sector] needs”. Current immigration policy for non-EU migrants was too restrictive and that “we cannot afford to make it too complex”, she said.

Today’s debate marked the launch of an independent Brexit Advisory Commission for Public Services, convened by CIPFA to promote and protect the interests of public services during the negotiation process.

Rob Whiteman, chief executive of CIPFA, said it was vital Brexit negotiators strengthened rather than weakened public services.

He added: “Ensuring the sustainability of public services isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity. Brexit will be the largest scale policy and legislation exercise we’ve undertaken and will inevitably change the delivery of public services. We must make sure that this is a positive, and not a negative, change.

“Public service leaders must assert themselves throughout the Brexit process and play a visible role throughout the negotiations. CIPFA’s Brexit Advisory Commission will provide the means to do so by representing the interests of the sector.”

Jonathan Portes and Saffron Cordery both contribute essays to the latest edition of PF Perspectives, The Brexit balance sheet: weighing up the public sector costs.

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