THE UK Government’s refusal to guarantee permanent rights to EU nationals who come to live and work in the UK during the Brexit transition phase is “fundamentally against the interests of Scottish business”.

As negotiators from Westminster and Brussels remain at loggerheads over a transition deal that would take effect when the UK officially exits the EU in March 2019, business leaders have voiced deep concern over their ability to access the skills they need, both in the immediate aftermath of Brexit and in the long-term future.

That worry is reflected in the views of nearly 240 Scottish company leaders, gathered by the business consultancy launched by former SNP MPs Michelle Thomson and Roger Mullin.

The self-funded research, which crunched together survey responses, one to one interviews, group discussions and studies carried out by leading business groups, found that access to skills is the number one or number two priority for the “vast majority” of Scottish firms when it comes to Brexit.

Concern over skills was reflected by leaders across the full range of sectors, from manufacturing, IT and energy to fisheries, food and drink, tourism and the arts.

And it was voiced both by people who voted to leave the European Union and those who wished to remain. Some company leaders said they were fearful of voicing their concerns over Brexit in public in case it impacts their business.

The research comes amid a continuing lack of clarity from the UK Government on what it envisages will be the rights of EU nationals during the Brexit transition period.

Mr Mullin said: “They are refusing to say there will be permanent rights of residence to EU nationals who come here during any transitional period. That is completely against the interests of businesses who want to recruit people. You tell me a business sector that… goes to the expense of recruiting people, knowing that they are here temporarily? It is a preposterous place to put the business community in.”

He added: “It’s all very well saying, don’t worry, we will make sure everything is okay. Well, if they were going to make sure everything is okay, why can they not even give a guarantee to the rights of EU nationals who come here during the transition period? Scotland’s business and the economy need to be able to recruit people not merely for a two-year transition period but right away into the future. There is no comfort being given at all by the approach to the negotiations. It would seem the interests of the business community are being cast to the wind in this way, and it is very difficult to find a rational reason why that should be so.”

Mr Mullin argues that business should continue to have “unfettered access” to skills from within the EU. And he declared the urgency of the skills debate is one which transcends politics.

Mr Mullin said: “It does not matter whether you were a Leaver or a Remainer, there is a common interest. The bigger interest here is supporting Scottish business, and whether it is Leavers or Remainers they want to have real access to the labour that is needed.”

Ms Thomson served on Westminster’s Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Select Committee, while Mr Mullin is a former Treasury spokesman. Mr Mullin said they decided to commission the research after becoming frustrated with the lack of “quality debate around Brexit” while serving as MPs. The study was carried out by their consultancy, Momentous Change.

More widely, Mr Mullin and Ms Thomson believe that business is being held back by out of date national skills strategies set by government in both London and Edinburgh.