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Rishi Sunak’s government is understood to be planning to welcome in more foreign builders to tackle a chronic post-Brexit labour shortage in Britain’s construction industry.
Despite the crackdown on illegal immigration routes, the government is said to be ready to add construction workers to a “shortage occupation list” in a bid to boost sluggish housebuilding.
The building sector has suffered from acute lack of workers since Brexit caused many European labourers to return to the EU.
The government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has recommended that bricklayers, plasterers, roofers and others construction workers should be added to the shortage list, according to the Financial Times.
Citing government insiders, the newspaper said home secretary Suella Braverman is expected to accept the idea of allowing building firms to bring in more overseas workers.
The shortage occupation list allows companies to get visas for staff being paid the lower threshold of £20,480 a year. The salary needed to obtain a “skilled worker” visa is £25,600.
The construction has been pushing hard for industry workers to be added to the shortage list. Federation of Master Builders has previously said it was a mistake for the government to cut off labour from the EU after Brexit without addressing the UK’s skills shortage.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported a 42 per cent fall in the number of EU nationals working in UK construction between 2017 and the end of 2020.
A spokesperson for the Home Builders Federation said: “If we are to increase housing supply and deliver the government’s housing target it is essential we have continued access to skilled labour from abroad.”
They added: “The industry is working hard to ensure that there is sufficient depth in the home-grown workforce but in the interim, access to foreign labour is required to plug capacity gaps.”
The organisation has argued that an extra 30,000 workers are needed to build an extra 10,000 homes. Last year, the UK saw around 230,000 new homes built – meaning around 210,000 extra workers would be needed to hit a target of 300,000 new homes.
There have been reports that the government could consider adding hospitality workers to the shortage occupation list, as pubs and restaurants also struggle with major staffing issues. But the industry is not expected to be added to the list at this stage.
Urging ministers to consider opening it up more widely, Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said it was clear “there aren’t enough people active in the economy to be able to fill all the roles that we need”.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is not expected to announce changes to overseas workers at next week’s Budget, with the recommendation on builders said be coming soon after his March plan.
But he is expected to make changes to the benefits system and announce other measures to encourage more over-50s to return to work in a bid to cut the number of economically-inactive Britons.
Sickness and disability payments could be removed more gradually once people find a jobs and start earning, like other out of work payments in Universal Credit, under government proposals.
The government is also said to considering proposals to give over-50s tax breaks for getting back into work after a career break.
Around nine million people in the UK are now “economically inactive” according to government figures, and around 2.2 million are on out of work benefits.
Brexit has led to a shortfall of around 330,000 workers in the UK, mostly in low-skilled sectors, a report by the Centre for European Reform (CER) and UK in a Changing Europe found earlier this year.
The Home Office last month commissioned MAC to carry out a major review of the shortage occupation list. While the call for evidence open until May, ministers have reportedly asked for a “quick and dirty” review to look specifically at hospitality, retail and construction industries.
Asked about the recommendation to allow more construction workers in, a government spokesperson said: “We work closely with the Migration Advisory Committee to ensure our points-based system delivers for the UK and works in the best interests of the economy, by prioritising the skills and talent we need and encouraging long-term investment in the domestic workforce.
“This includes reviewing the shortage occupation list to ensure it reflects the current labour market. The MAC has published its call for evidence and we encourage all interested parties to respond.”