It’s hardly surprising that the big story from the Chancellor’s statement a week ago has been its effect on the economy. In fact, it’s been the only story. But apart from taking a wrecking ball to so many taxes, he also had something significant to say about a subject dear to the heart of many voters: immigration. The government wants to use immigration to help boost economic growth. In simple terms, he wants to allow more immigrants into this country. It is a policy that divides the cabinet and, indeed, the nation. Where do you stand?
There’s little doubt that there is a serious shortage of skilled and even unskilled labour in this country. You need only to count the number of pubs, clubs, restaurants that are warning they will have to close because they cannot get the staff they need to stay open. Many have already done so. Some will say that’s hardly the end of the world. Indeed, they will argue that there are too many hospitality venues of one kind or another in our big towns and cities. And the most popular will always attract customers and be able to pay wages that will attract the staff they need.
That’s not an argument that can be applied to care homes. Even the best are struggling to recruit the right sort of motivated workers who can be relied on to care for the most vulnerable. And the need has never been greater – especially for people prepared to work night shifts and holidays. One of the main reasons for the crisis in the NHS is that people who no longer need their hospital beds cannot be discharged because they have no-one to care for them at home and there are no suitable care homes in their area. Some estimates suggest that so-called ‘bed blockers’ account for one in seven of all hospital beds.
Many farms are in desperate need of relatively unskilled workers. Farmers have had to watch crops of fruit and vegetables rotting in their fields because there are simply not enough workers to pick them. The effect is shortages in many areas and higher prices. Some farmers are struggling to stay in business.
It’s a similar story in industry and commerce. In an age when most of us expect our purchases to be delivered to our doors, there are simply not enough drivers to do the job. And the factories where the goods are manufactured or assembled are struggling too. Lorry drivers are vital to the smooth running of any industrial economy. There simply are not enough of them
Obviously there is no shortage of people from other, poorer countries who want to live and work in this country. Throughout the summer new records were set for the number of illegal migrants risking their lives crossing the Channel in rubber dinghies, paying huge sums to the criminals who organise the crossings. Many of them will have been unskilled – but not all.
And yet two million job vacancies were advertised last month. The social care sector alone needs to fill 105,000 posts. More than 40,000 nurses left the NHS in the year ending last June. That’s one in ten. The transport industry needs 100,000 HGV drivers. The notion of full employment may be politically attractive on one level – but not when waiting lists in the NHS are at record levels and the hospitality sector is on its knees because of the after-effects of Covid.
Nobody disputes that a shortage of skilled and semi-skilled labour is holding back the economy. That was the message delivered by Kwasi Karteng in his speech. But the solution he and Liz Truss are proposing has met with serious opposition from many quarters – including the cabinet itself. Immigration controls must be relaxed. In political terms immigration could scarcely be more toxic. If there was a single issue that pushed the Brexit vote over the wire… that was it.
Like many other reporters who travelled around the country during the referendum campaign in 2016 I heard the same message repeated endlessly from the least affluent quarters of our town and cities. It was summed up in one phrase: we must take back control of our borders. Many complained of having to compete for their jobs against immigrants who were prepared to work for less. Or about long queues in GP surgeries caused by patients who spoke no English. Or about schools struggling to cope with the immigrants’ children. Or about competing with immigrants and their often large families for housing.
We shall never know for certain what effect the immigration issue had on the outcome of the referendum, but ‘take back control’ became the defining issue of the campaign for vast numbers of voters. The intensity of the immigration debate may have cooled since then, but it hasn’t gone away – which is why there’s some surprise in political circles that Liz Truss has risked reviving it.
Those in the cabinet who are reported to oppose loosening the visa regulations and allowing in more immigration include Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Net migration, they believe, must fall. That’s what their party promised at the last election and it’s a promise they should keep. Before he became the new health minister the Tory MP Neil O’Brien wrote in Conservative Home: ‘Many Leave voters assumed Brexit would reduce immigration but since the referendum it’s increased. And people are starting to notice. The small boats crisis highlights it. If the new prime minister doesn’t grip that, it could be the spark for a new populist party.’ Theresa May’s former joint chief of staff Nick Timothy, described the existing points system for would-be immigrants as ‘obscenely generous’ and immigration as being far too high. He claims that ‘mass immigration has already made our economic problems worse’.
In the Home Office, ministers are reported to approve of relaxing restrictions to allow in more immigrants – so long as they have the skills the country needs. Many who share that view say it’s important to distinguish between those who want to make their homes here and those with specific skills who come to do a specific job and return home after years or even months. It’s they who help make the country richer, they claim.
There’s a third view that says we should welcome more immigrants who want to live here even if they don’t have specific skills. EU countries like Germany and France have more liberal immigration policies but have seen no effect on their productivity and they point to a report from the IMF in 2016 which found that immigration had no negative impact on the conditions for investment in Europe as a whole. Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at Kings College London, agrees. He says there’s plenty of research which suggests that immigration to the UK has a positive impact on productivity and innovation with ‘higher-skilled migration having a more positive impact’. But, he adds, even low-skilled immigration is an asset.
At the most basic level the nation’s debate over immigration may come down to a pretty simple proposition: either these islands of ours are already too crowded or they are not. Many might argue that it depends on where you live. The perspective of a Scottish Highlander would differ from someone in a London high rise. So perhaps we should turn to the Office for National Statistics. They have revised their projection for UK population growth by 2045 downwards by nearly two million. What’s more they have projected the percentage of over-85s will have doubled by then to more than three million.
So should we welcome more immigrants? And if so, should we restrict them to those with the skills the nation needs or even those who have no intention of staying for more than a few years? Or should we say: enough is enough.
Do let us know.