Politics 2 October 2018 | 12:29

Theresa May must realise that the UK needs foreign workers

02 October 2018 12:29

In our first #StartHere manifesto piece, we described ourselves as ‘unapologetic internationalists’ who ‘regard “diversity” not as an objective to be pursued by bosses nervous about the public image of their corporations, but as an empirical feature of contemporary society to be celebrated and reflected in all that we do.’

Which is to say that we embrace immigration as a cultural good as well as an economic necessity. But an economic necessity it most certainly is. Britain is, and has long been, a heterogeneous society because it needs foreign workers.

To an extent overshadowed by the alarming mood of nativism that has loomed over mainstream politics in recent years – and especially since the EU referendum – Britain’s prosperity and public services are now utterly dependent upon migrant labour. According to the House of Commons Library, 12.5 per cent of all NHS employees are foreign nationals – 5.6 per cent from the European Union.

Today, at the Conservative conference in Birmingham, Theresa May announced the Government’s post-Brexit immigration strategy – and a depressing suite of policies it is, too.

Leave aside, for now, the possibility that Britons may have to seek US-style visa waiver forms to visit the EU after Britain leaves. The populist heart of the Prime Minister’s proposals is a promise to curb low-skilled labour migration the continent.

‘We’ll ensure we recognise the needs of the economy,’ she said on the BBC’s Today programme. ‘If you look at these low-skilled areas, we hope there will be the ability to train people here in the UK to take jobs.’

This pledge reflects a fundamental misapprehension: that low-skilled labour is imported only to drive down wages (an economic phenomenon which is much-disputed and certainly not as pronounced as Brexiteers insist). In fact, the problem is otherwise: it has proved exasperatingly hard to find British-born workers to fill many blue-collar and service sector jobs.

When the Migration Advisory Committee recommended last month that lower-skilled workers should not be granted permits after Brexit, the reaction from – for example – the NHS, the haulage industry and small businesses was loud and clear. Such measures might scratch a populist itch, but they will pose immense problems for private and public sectors alike.

Ministers say that they will train Britons to fill the gap: but how often have we heard such promises from governments of all complexions? The pledge of a ‘skills revolution’ is (regrettably) one of the most familiar and hollow in British political rhetoric. It is the single transferable promise.

Even if such a revolution were to be launched, its fruits would not be ripe for a decade. Which poses a very simple question: who does the work until then?