For any small business, the people within it are key to its success. Whether it's a tech start-up looking for a programmer or a central heating firm looking for a plumber, they need access to the right people with the right skills. The performance of their business and its ability to grow depends upon it. As we leave the EU, one of the biggest questions from small businesses is whether they will easily be able to turn to workers from our European neighbours, as the UK has become so used to over the last 40 years.
Our latest research has found that more than one-in-five of our members with staff currently employs at least one non-UK EU citizen. Of those, more than half tell us they are concerned about their ability to get access to the workforce skills they need post-Brexit. That is why it is important to begin talking about this now, to make sure that any new immigration system doesn't hinder small firms.
As things stand, it looks unlikely that freedom of movement for EU migrant workers to the UK will continue in its current form, and therefore some kind of visa or work permit system will eventually be introduced. It is vital for small businesses, which do not have the luxury of their own HR departments and specialist lawyers, to have a system which is simple, straight-forward and does not involve inhibitive bureaucracy or costs. If it is designed to help and support a small business then it will work for any size of business; very rarely do these things work top down.
Most of our members who employ non-UK EU workers hired those staff when they were already in the UK; they applied for the role along with anyone else, and did so with the right already to work. Small firms are not used to advertising and recruiting from overseas nor working through a visa application process. That should be considered carefully by those who will be involved in drawing up new rules. And once an EU worker has the required documentation to work in the UK, they should have the ability to switch jobs without the new employer having to deal with mounds of paperwork from the Home Office.
In the shorter term, small businesses need certainty that they are not going to have to lose existing EU workers. Frankly, those workers deserve that assurance too. Anyone that has worked in a small business will know that it is similar to a family unit, and so losing someone would be a huge blow. And so I would like to see as soon as possible a guarantee that existing EU workers in the UK - and those who come between now and when we leave the EU - can continue to live and work here post-Brexit.
Some will ask why skills gaps and labour shortages can't be filled from the UK workforce. I believe that Brexit does present a great opportunity for us to look again at vocational and skills education in this country to make sure that it is right to equip young people with the skills and experience they - and the economy - need. There is already a lot of talent in the UK's workforce, but our members do find some roles - often those which require very specific skills - can be difficult to fill. Any re-shaping of education and training could have fantastic long-term benefits. But they are long-term - and we are due to leave the EU in less than two years.
That is why it is important not to make any dramatic, sudden changes to the availability of workers from the EU. Instead, there must be a transitional period of at least three years and then in addition to this, a gradual implementation of any new immigration system.
It is vital for the UK's future prosperity that Brexit is delivered in a way which helps small businesses to grow and prosper. And that is why it is so important not to create barriers to small firms accessing the skills and labour they need in order to thrive.