Brexit secretary David Davis, speaking at a conference of business leaders in London, reassured employers that an early agreement to secure the rights of EU nationals living in the UK is possible.

Speaking today at the Prosperity conference Davis said: “The government has made it very clear it wants to secure the rights of EU nationals living in Britain at the earliest chance in the negotiations.” Davis added: “I am confident we can achieve very early agreement on these issues.”

Many business leaders attending Wednesday’s conference voiced their anxiety over the uncertainty surrounding the fate of millions of people living and working across Europe. 

Jes Staley, the chief executive of Barclays, said: “We have 3,000 employees in the UK who have EU passports. We would love to be able to give certainty to them as soon as possible that they are secure. Intellectual capital is the most important asset that London has.”

Staley said that while government immigration policy has become more vital, this might not stop firms from moving abroad. Barclays, for example, is moving 150 jobs to Dublin. He stressed that being able to employ talented workers after Brexit is “tremendously important” for the financial sector, and it should be the government’s priority. 

Davis acknowledged the concerns, and hinted that immigration policy might prioritise skilled visas: “No one wants to pull up the drawbridge. A global Britain will always want the brightest and the best,” he added. 

The Prosperity UK conference: 26 April

The conference, which was sponsored by the Legatum Institute and Open Europe, was organised by two Brexit rivals: Sir Paul Marshall and Lord Jonathan Hill. Marshall is a hedge fund manager who is currently seeking a more active role in discussions relating to post-Brexit opportunities. He supported the Leave campaign with a £100,000 donation, and is now partnering with the UK’s former top Brussels’ official and Remain supporter, Lord Jonathan Hill. Together they organised the conference in London to bring together business, universities and trade and debate on how to achieve the best outcome after Brexit.

Marshall believes that the government isn’t really listening to the industry’s demands or focussing on the opportunities: 

“In Westminster, you have politicians in both houses basically going through their different stages of grief and some of them are in denial; some of them were angry; some of them are grudgingly getting to grips with it.” Marshall sees business people as more focussed and “just getting on with it. Those voices need to be centre stage and the politicians need to hear them.”

Sir Paul was also known in political circles for co-editing The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism and he donated £200,000 between 2002-2005, before he withdrew support due to the party’s position for the UK to remain within the EU.

Conservative peer Lord Hill, who resigned last summer after voting Remain, is equally supporting a similar positive attitude as Sir Paul. Despite coming from the opposite camp of Remainers, Lord Hill said that “People who say there will be no economic impact of leaving other than a kind of ‘happy pills for all’ are delusional.” But leaving doesn’t mean that things would be “catastrophically worse.” While previously he warned that leaving the EU would be “bad for Britain and bad for London,” he is now “obsessed by the fact that we should be putting our intellectual capacity in Whitehall, in politics, in business, in universities, into thinking about the future and thinking as well about some of the things the British government could do to enable business to flourish”.

Barclays chief executive Jes Staley and Lord Wolfson, Next chief executive and chairman of Open Europe, attended the conference among senior cabinet ministers and business leaders. The conference is independent and seeks to generate debate without promoting or opposing a particular political orientation

But while businesses demand to secure the rights of their employees and Davis is implying that only skilled visas would be a priority, the idea of free movement shouldn’t be the privilege of the few but of the many. Since EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in EU countries contribute to society, they shouldn’t be used by any government as bargaining chips, but given the certainty that their jobs and their legal status after Brexit are guaranteed.