Dianne Sharp: Free movement of people is essential to success of British business

Regional head of the CBI says the benefits of free movement need to be argued

Dianne Sharp, the regional director for the CBI
Dianne Sharp, the regional director for the CBI

Concern around free movement and migration is at the centre of the increasing debate about Britain’s continued membership of the EU.

YouGov polling shows a seismic change in attitudes to EU migration. In 2005, the right of people in EU countries to live and work wherever they want was supported by two-to-one of those polled. By 2013 almost two-to-one people said they want the European Union to scrap free movement, with 52% of voters wanting David Cameron to seek to end these rights as part of his proposed renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU.

An embrace of ‘openness’ – to trade and people, to investment and ideas from abroad – has always been the foundation of Britain’s success. So it’s important to take these concerns seriously and to make the positive case for free movement, so that everyone can see and feel the gains of mobility.

It’s therefore deeply worrying that some politicians are saying limiting the free movement of people within the EU should be at the heart of our EU renegotiation strategy.

Labour mobility in the EU brings benefits for British business, as well as offering huge social opportunities for people in the UK and wider EU. While there is no precise number of UK nationals resident in other EU member states, estimates range from 1.4m to 2.2m.

63% of CBI members say that the free movement of labour within the EU has been beneficial to their businesses, with only 1% saying that it had had a negative impact. And EU membership and free movement is vital to unlocking global and European direct investment into the UK – to help start up factories, build office space, stimulate R&D or support innovation in creative industries – and also provided new investment avenues for UK companies.

Free movement allows businesses located in the UK to recruit from a much wider pool of potential workers – allowing firms to expand to new markets, address skills gaps, build pan-European supply chains and have increased flexibility during periods of growth. It improves the way in which European labour markets function by easing the effects of structural market failures, particularly skills shortages, as well as allowing firms to access to non-UK workers that may have very specific, outstanding skills.

Of course migration cannot answer all our skills challenges and businesses must play their part in developing the UK’s domestic skills base and ensuring that our young people are equipped with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

But up-skilling and re-skilling takes time. In a dynamic, innovative economy skills may lag behind in the newest and most vibrant sectors.

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