Theresa May’s Brexit speech: what will it mean for employment?


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.

The UK’s 12 priorities negotiating Brexit

1. Provide certainty
2. Take control of our own laws
3. Strengthen the union between the four UK nations
4. Maintain the Common Travel Area with Ireland
5. Control immigration from the EU
6. Guarantee rights for EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in the EU
7. Protect workers’ rights
8. Pursue free trade with European markets
9. Strike new trade agreements with other countries
10. Be the best place for science and innovation
11. Continue to co-operate against crime and terrorism
12. Seek phased process of implementation

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.”


Richard Gardner/REX/Shutterstock

Richard Gardner/REX/Shutterstock

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.”


Katie Newbury, senior associate at Kingsley Napley: “Theresa May has spoken today of creating a ‘fairer, more united and more outward-looking’ United Kingdom. She has talked about respect for the rights of Europeans who have made the UK their home and the importance of guaranteeing their right to remain.

“Yet sadly she offered nothing new. It seems the fate of those in question still relies on the outcome of negotiations with other EU states regarding British citizens in those nations. The UK continues to place negotiating tactics above the rights of their own residents.

“Mrs May used her speech to berate those who want greater clarity and are as she said ‘frustrated’. It is not mere frustration driving three million Europeans to seek security in their residency. Their future is at stake.

“We call upon Mrs May to ensure there are proper and effective transitional provisions in place as a matter of priority. It is essential these reflect the practicalities of requiring three million people to get documented and the harsh reality of limited Home Office resources.

“Meanwhile EU citizens here remain in limbo and will be hugely disappointed that they did not receive the certainty they sought from today’s speech.”


Alan Davidson / Silverhub/REX/Shutterstock

Alan Davidson/Silverhub/REX/Shutterstock

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.”


Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

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-cheesePeter 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.”|PTPT|PTDIR-2017-0118


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