Following Theresa May’s speech laying out the UK’s objectives for its exit from the EU, we round up the reaction from business groups, employment lawyers and unions.
Recruitment and Employment Confederation chief executive Kevin Green said: “Today’s speech by the Prime Minister will be cold comfort to UK employers. The Government’s plan risks putting the jobs market in reverse by leaving the single market and curtailing access to workers from the EU. We must not underestimate the vital role that EU workers play across the economy. We need more nurses to care for our ageing population, more people with the skills to build houses and seasonal workers to ensure that farmers can continue to deliver for British customers.”
“The reality is that we have near-full employment; the idea that there are hundreds of thousands of UK nationals waiting in the wings to take these jobs is a fantasy. Instead of recognising this, the Prime Minister propagated the myth that immigration has had a negative impact on pay in the UK.”
Omer Simjee, employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell: “The PM has thrown a recruitment gauntlet down for businesses by pushing for a clean Brexit.
“Businesses which rely on EU nationals as seasonal workers and also those who provide care for the elderly will have to start to consider how they are going to attract local workers to ensure continuity of service for their clients and customers.
“That may not be easy, particularly in light of the fluctuating value of our national minimum wage when converted into euros.
“These types of roles are considered to be unattractive and many businesses have struggled to attract good, reliable workers from within the UK. It may be that they will have to consider offering other incentives, but this is likely to push up costs and make it unprofitable to be able to continue with current business models.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady: “We are pleased the Prime Minister has committed to a parliamentary vote on the final deal. But before that vote, we will need to know exactly what the new framework she promised for workers’ rights and jobs will be.
“Working people are worried they will end up paying the price of leaving the single market. There is real concern that it will be bad for jobs, bad for rights at work, and bad for the living standards of British people.
“The commitment to protect workers’ existing rights and to build on them is welcome. The best way to do this is for the Prime Minister to agree that UK workers’ rights will always be as good as, or better, than workers’ rights in the rest of the EU.”
Len McCluskey, general secretary Unite: “The Prime Minister’s announcement today looks set to send shock waves around factories and shop-floors across the country.
“Her determination to appease the hard right in her party and Ukip by talking tough on immigration is putting millions of jobs in jeopardy.
“Mrs May must not put party before country today. Trade unions and others have clearly outlined how real concerns over the freedom of movement can be addressed by sensible labour market safeguards without abandoning the single market when we leave the EU.
“Out of the single market, possibly out of the customs union, then investment in core sectors like car manufacturing, chemicals, aerospace, even food manufacturing, will be threatened as companies face hefty on-costs and serious disruption to their supply chains.
“I urge Mrs May to listen to the anguish of working class communities, not to add to it. Trading with nations that will not uphold our labour standards is not an acceptable solution – that trade will come with a heavy price tag, certain to be paid in the jobs, rights and wages of working people.
“The Prime Minister must pay less heed to the Brexit headbangers around the cabinet table and more to the anxiety felt by working people who believe their jobs are being held hostage by the extreme nationalist wing of her government.”
UKIP leader Paul Nuttall: “Some of it did sound like a UKIP conference speech and the Prime Minister is now applying some of the things that we’ve been talking about for many, many years, so I would give her seven out of ten for this effort.
“But I am concerned that what we’re getting is some sort of slow-motion Brexit where she is speaking about interim measures, or a transitional period, which will only begin after April 2019. She has given no end date to these transitional measures. I challenge the Prime Minister; let’s have this all done and clean before the next General Election in 2020.
“Good marks for saying we are leaving the EU’s single market and stopping mass immigration. However, the vital issues of leaving the European Court of Human Rights and taking back control of our fishing waters have been left out completely and free movement of people is being offered as a carrot to the EU for the transitional period which has no defined end, so we could end up with no change on that for a decade or more.
“As Home Secretary, Theresa May always talked tough but failed to deliver. I challenge her to change the habit of a political lifetime and actually deliver this time. And I mean on time and in full.”
Simon Conington, founder of resourcing specialist BPS World: “2017 is going to be a pivotal year for the UK economy. The decisions the Government makes now on the implementation of Brexit will affect our ability to attract the talent we need to grow.
“The impact will be felt immediately as talent will not come to the UK if they know they will have to leave within two years. We urge the Government to continue to ensure we have access to skilled people, particularly in sectors where we’re already struggling to find the talent we need.”
Jonathan Beech, managing director of Migrate UK: “The fact that Theresa May recognises in her Brexit speech, that we must continue to attract the brightest and best to work and study in Britain, is a positive sign for the future talent of our workforce. But how she manages this as part of her policy to control immigration will be critical to ensuring that British organisations that rely on the skills of an international workforce remain strong.
“As May says, we need highly skilled immigration but some of the Government’s immigration policies, announced last year, include introducing a tougher work permit system and a tighter resident labour market test for companies to pass before recruiting EU employees.
“These polices could threaten the future skills of our workforce. They could see the introduction of costly and time consuming policies for organisations that employ EU workers whilst work permits could heavily limit EU migrants from Britain unless they already have a skilled job offer.
“The Prime Minister may have said in her Brexit speech that she wants to secure the rights of EU nationals in Britain but if companies want to be certain over the future of their EU skills, then they’re advised to encourage any EU workers, who are classified as a ‘qualified persons’, to apply for a registration certificate. This will prove their right to live or to work in the UK and give the assurance employers need ahead of any immigration changes imposed.”
Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD: “It’s important that businesses have clarity about what the Government is seeking to achieve in the negotiations, so we welcome the details of the Prime Minister’s speech.
“The Prime Minister has made it clear that she wants the UK to be able to control its borders. However, it should still be possible to design a flexible, managed immigration system that allows businesses to access the skilled and unskilled labour they need from both EU and non-EU countries. If we are to use Brexit to deliver a global Britain as the Prime Minister wishes, then British business must be able to continue to attract and access global talent. We would urge the Government to engage properly with organisations and employer bodies to ensure that their views and needs are reflected in any deal that the Prime Minister seeks to negotiate.
“It is particularly welcome that the Prime Minister confirmed that the protections afforded to workers through current employment legislation will continue. Many EU-derived regulations provide vital workplace protections and workers up and down the country will be reassured by the news that their rights will not be sacrificed as part of any deal.
“However, it is disappointing that the Prime Minister is currently unable to confirm that EU nationals already residing in the UK will be allowed to stay. This needs to be an immediate priority in the negotiations to come.
“Given the implications for migration, it’s more important than ever that businesses look ahead and plan their people strategies, and understand the skills and talents they need in order to ensure that that they are prepared for the future, regardless of what the final arrangements look like.”
Nicholas Le Riche, employment partner at Bircham Dyson Bell: “It is now clear that the Government is prepared to come out of the single market and impose immigration controls on EU nationals.
“This could of course be a negotiating plan on the Government’s part to encourage EU leaders to offer a deal on access to the single market. However, for the moment, the business community will have to cope with continued uncertainty over what a post-Brexit immigration regime will look like in practice.”
Richard Bonnar, partner and chair of DLA Piper’s Brexit committee: “There has been constant speculation over the past six months about the form of the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU.
“For the most part, this has been framed in terms of a ‘hard’ Brexit – whereby the UK comes out of the EU single market for goods and services altogether, but seeks a free trade agreement with the EU for future dealings – and a ‘soft’ Brexit, which sees the UK retaining some form of tariff-free access to the single market.
“Theresa May’s speech today could not have been clearer: There will be no partial membership for the EU, half-in and half-out. Brexit is going to be hard. This will come as unwelcome news to those who have been pushing for a softer exit, in line with the Norway model, or with post-Brexit arrangements decided on a sector-by-sector basis.
“Whether this is just tough talk remains to be seen. However, Theresa May’s speech does provide a degree of clarity for the many businesses that have been playing a waiting game since the referendum result.
“Those that rely on passporting rights, for example, will now need to decide whether Theresa May’s promise of a stronger and more global Britain is more valuable to them than the loss of a foot-hold in the EU, although the Prime Minister hinted that any future free trade agreement might incorporate elements of the current single market when it comes to financial services.
“Businesses should be relieved that Theresa May is promising a phased process of implementation, which will assuage the concerns of some who feared a cliff edge at the end of the two year exit negotiation.
“The Prime Minister’s speech is likely to lead to more focus on the various legal cases currently underway or in the pipeline, which seek to challenge the mechanics or effect of Brexit – in particular the question of whether the UK’s Article 50 exit notice, once given, can be revoked.”
Ros Kellaway, EU law expert and partner at Eversheds: “For those that heard the speech the Prime Minister gave at the last Conservative Party conference, today’s speech is a welcome elaboration of the ideas that she put on the table on that occasion.
“It is clear the UK will be leaving the single market and will not accept the supremacy of EU law once we leave the EU. There will be no substitute European organisation, such as the [European Economic Area], that the UK will be joining post-Brexit.
“The Prime Minister wants the UK to be able to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries, but at the same time enter into some sort of customs agreement with the EU.
“According to the Prime Minister, she will be trying to reach an agreement on the UK’s future trading partnership with the EU by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded.
“She has made it clear that she wants a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU allowing for the ‘freest possible trade in goods and services’, the question is how long that will take to conclude and the terms on which the rest of the EU will actually be willing to enter into such an agreement.
“May is also seeking a phased process of implementation of the changes resulting from Brexit.
“For UK businesses, there remains great uncertainty about the basis on which they might continue trading with Europe. But they might take comfort from Mrs May’s emphatic message about the pivotal role she sees the UK playing in global trade.”
Allie Renison, head of Europe and trade policy at the Institute of Directors, said: “We welcome the level of detail provided in the PM’s speech and her commitment to providing certainty wherever possible, which is absolutely vital for businesses if they are to navigate and make the best of Brexit.
“Whatever the shape of the final trade deal, a smooth and orderly departure is in the whole country’s interests, so businesses will support the commitment to a phased process of implementation. While we do not expect a running commentary, firms hope to get periodic updates to maintain confidence as we make our way towards the exit.
“We now know that we will be leaving the single market, and while there will be firms who regret this, they will at least be able to plan on that basis. Business leaders will be heartened by the Prime Minister’s strong argument for the value of free trade, an argument currently being made by all too few global leaders.
“The UK was always going to have to negotiate a separate customs agreement with the EU if we left the European Economic Area, so the aim must be a new deal that creates minimum disruption for importers and exporters.
“The Prime Minister does not want an ‘off-the-shelf’ Brexit model, but the more bespoke an arrangement being sought, the longer companies will have to wait to see details before they can plan. Negotiations will involve lots of back and forth between the UK and EU and both sides will need to show some flexibility.
“From the point of view of business, getting a broad-ranging free trade deal would be preferable to falling back on World Trade Organisation [WTO] rules.
“We would urge the EU to match the Government’s approach in taking a long-term, big-picture view about the need for cooperation and partnership in future.”
Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-general: “Today the Prime Minister changed the landscape. Ruling out membership of the single market has reduced options for maintaining a barrier-free trading relationship between the UK and the EU.
“But businesses will welcome the greater clarity and the ambition to create a more prosperous, open and global Britain, with the freest possible trade between the UK and the EU.
“The pressure is now on to deliver these objectives and achieve a smooth and orderly exit.
“Businesses want to make a success of Brexit but will be concerned about falling back on damaging WTO rules.
“They stand ready to support the negotiations to get the best possible deal for the UK by ensuring that the economic case is heard loud and clear.”
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party: “Theresa May has made clear that she is determined to use Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven on the shores of Europe.
“She makes out this is a negotiating threat to the 27 EU countries but it’s actually a threat to the British people’s jobs, services and living standards.
“We welcome that the Prime Minister has listened to the case we’ve been making about the need for full tariff free access to the single market but are deeply concerned about her reckless approach to achieving it.
“This speech should have been given in Parliament where MPs could ask her questions on behalf of their constituents. She talks about Brexit restoring parliamentary sovereignty but, once again, she is determined to avoid real scrutiny of her plans.”
Tim Roache, GMB general secretary: “Fantastical speeches and wishful thinking is all well and good, but what does this actually mean for British jobs and industry in the coming years?
“The British people deserve to know what the consequences of the Theresa May’s priorities could be for them – what does it mean for jobs, wages, the cost of living and the British economy? It’s time for the Government to come clean on who would pay what price.
“A leap in the dark and political platitudes just won’t cut it for families trying to budget and plan for the future. When it comes to the day to day impact of the Government’s Brexit policy on working people, sadly it’s still as clear as mud.
“The Government cannot cling to the failed policies of the past as a roadmap for what comes next – the politicians and businesses who allowed the growth of zero hours and agency Britain, Tory Governments who wouldn’t support British steel and British industry, instead hiding behind the EU as a reason not to intervene and those who profited from cheap EU labour while the wages and conditions of skilled workers were undercut are what lead us here in the first place.
“The Chancellor’s threats to turn Britain into a tax haven this week show Tory ministers are badly out of step with a country that wants greater fairness and not more favours to big business.
“We need a government that will properly invest in our workforce, public services, communities and industry and take action against rogue employers exploiting migrant labour through weak employment laws.
“The Prime Minister already has many powers at her disposal and can start work today if she is serious about improving people’s lives. Theresa May does not have to hide behind two years of discussions with EU countries when she can fully fund our NHS, introduce a proper living wage and give workers in Britain stronger safeguards now.”
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, in an interview with the BBC: “What I’ve heard today from the PM is an inability to engage in discussions that further compromise.
“I will continue to act in an orderly and reasonable fashion. I said I would exhaust all options, and that’s what I will do. But we are going to have to see some give from the UK Government.
“I am not prepared to allow Scotland’s interests to be simply cast aside. I’m not prepared for Scotland to be taken down a path which I firmly believe to be damaging not just to our economy but to the very kind of society that we are.”