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HR and Brexit: The Countdown Continues

With the Article 50 clock ticking - what now for HRDs? The latest Brexit event from FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance looks for answers


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Almost exactly one year on from the first of these Brexit breakfast events, and sixteen months on from the EU referendum in the UK – the FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance convenes a new panel of experts to ask – with the Article 50 clock ticking - where are we now?

As with each of these events (and as is becoming the recognised modus operandi of FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance) insights from the world of executive development are paired with the highly specialised, sector-specific knowledge of FT journalists (and often an appropriate academic). In this case, the FT’s Brexit editor Dan Dombey, and Whitehall editor (and previously diplomatic editor) James Blitz – and chair, Michael Skapinker, FT columnist and Executive Editor of FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance.

From an information rich session, here are some of the highlights, with particular focus on the concerns of the HR and Talent community, and how they should be preparing.

Where are we now?

James Blitz summarises the current situation in Brussels: “Negotiations revolve around three points: financial obligations, the future status of Northern Ireland, and the status of EU citizens living in the UK. The broad view is that progress has been good and they are within touching distance of a deal on EU citizens rights. On Northern Ireland however, there has been very little progress, with no turnkey solution emerging. Most difficult of all seems to be the money. Personally I do think December will see some sort of agreement made on the cash, and for the two years from March 2019 to March 2021 – some transition deal will be done. This is the good news. Beyond that – and in particular with regards the future trading agreement – the government is completely divided.”

Dan Dombey: “We do now have more clarity, but there is no less uncertainty. The worry about the cliff-edge has receded a bit – because we now know where the UK government wants to go, but on the other hand there is no guarantee on how it intends to get there.

In terms of reassurances for the talent sector; the UK has well-established rules on non-EU immigration, and high-skilled immigration. The real concern is that there is no current low-skill immigration scheme in place, because right now the EU takes care of that. The effect will be on the estimated one million low-skill workers from the EU, in construction, food processing, hospitality. In terms of high-skill, the signs are that at least through transition, things should remain the same.”

How optimistic can we be of a transition that lasts until 2021? Some MPs are still talking about ‘no deal’ and walking away. And where does that leave EU workers living here today?

James Blitz, “There are still reasons to worry about a transition deal. Is two years enough for certain sectors of the economy such as customs declarations? There are enormous capacity issues both in Dover and the channel tunnel. Also scepticism about whether the legal architecture can be put in place to keep, for example, customs law in place, despite leaving the customs union.

Looking beyond the transition to the forward leaning areas, there is much less definition. Such as future immigration terms. The Migration Advisory Committee are producing their report, and it will be much closer to the time of leaving before we learn about high-skill/low-skill quotas for example.

On the other hand, Amber Rudd has said that transition to settled status – i.e. the right to remain in the UK with equivalent rights, will be rolled out late in 2018. Three million EU citizens living in the UK right now can start applying at that point and anyone applying has the right to stay. Even with no deal, this will roll out anyway – so there is a lot of assurance there, which you can pass on to reassure your workforce. They won’t need to show that they have health insurance, as was suggested initially. The government has moved a long way on that. But can the Home Office process three million applications? – This is what would concern me most as an HR Director. The Home Office has a very poor track record on things like this – Universal Credit being a recent example.”

Dan Dombey added, “Mrs May said recently that the UK would have a “streamlined digital process” in place to deal with these applications – three words to strike fear into the heart of any executive! But it is true that there have been big substantive moves from the UK government on this and you can reassure to a large extent, your EU workforce who are already here. It is the future regime that’s a much more uncertain beast.”

What would you say to HR Directors to reassure them today - and what could they say to their employees?

Dan Dombey: “If I were an HRD, I would say to my EU employees: don’t panic. I would say that Brexit is my problem, not yours. I would say that in 2021 you will have been here long enough to qualify for citizenship – you can stay and we will look after you.”

James Blitz: “My advice to HRDs looking to plan ahead, would be to leave a large part of your thinking reserved for the unknowns. Wait and see. And you can give your EU workforce - even in the worst case scenario - assurances that the settled status program has a decent chance of working.”

You can read more about how the FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance partnered with PwC recently, sharing the unique insights of their journalists in the countdown to Brexit: you can download the case study here

You can watch an edited video of this panel discussion here.

Headspring was launched April 2019 as a continuation and development of the successful collaboration between the Financial Times and IE Business School, formerly known as FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance, an initiative created in 2015 to transform the way executive education and professional development meet the changing needs of business.

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