THE views of Home Office minister Kevin Foster on the skills and labour shortages which are exacerbating the woes of Scottish businesses should not have been surprising at all, given we sadly live in a time of entrenched ideological perspectives. However, his comments during a trip north of the Border last week did nevertheless amaze, and not in any sort of good way.
What the comments appeared to indicate was supreme detachment from the reality on the ground.
Mr Foster seemed keen to frame his comments as an argument with the Scottish Government.
Among what seemed like somewhat bizarre ruminations from the Home Office minister on immigration, in the context of labour market shortages, Mr Foster accused the Scottish Government of wanting to “judge people based on whether they come from Europe or Africa”, claiming the points-based immigration system “allows many more jobs” to be recruited “on a global basis”.
It is impossible to see any basis in fact at all for his first point. It is nonsense and can be ignored.
His second point is best examined by looking at what is actually happening in the real world.
The fact of the matter is that businesses across a raft of sectors in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK have been highlighting very real skills and labour shortages for years now, in the wake of a 2016 Brexit vote which triggered a huge fall in net migration from continuing European Union member states.
So the problems had been building very significantly even before the Conservative Government got its much-desired end of free movement between the UK and continuing EU member states with the exit from the European single market on December 31, 2020.
Senior Tories have made no bones about their delight over the clampdown on immigration from the EU.
As much of the rest of the world was celebrating news of success in coronavirus vaccine development last November, Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted: “After many years of campaigning, I am delighted the Immigration Bill which will end free movement on 31st December has today passed through Parliament. We are delivering on the will of the British people.”
The reality is, however, that the end of free movement has made the labour market situation, which had been increasingly problematic in the years following the Brexit vote, much worse still. And at the worst possible of times.
To determine whether the UK’s new immigration policy is working for the country’s economy and for businesses, with EU citizens now facing the Tory points-based system rather than having free movement if they wish to work in post-Brexit Britain, Mr Foster should listen to companies and industry bodies. He will hear from them a very different reality to that which he seems to have embraced.
It does not really matter whether it is that he cannot or will not see the reality of what is unfolding – it is the lack of acknowledgement of the problem that is the huge worry. A refusal to recognise there is an enormous problem in the context of skills and labour market shortages as a result of Brexit, and a seeming lack of acknowledgement that this will be an ongoing thing, indicates the issue will continue to be ignored.
If Mr Foster’s comments are anything to go by, the Tories will not only refuse to address this big problem but may also continue to behave as if it does not exist, declining to take on board what those actually affected by labour and skills shortages are telling them.
It is a frustrating situation indeed. There have been plenty of warnings about the impact of skills and labour shortages in a raft of sectors across the Scottish economy, from hospitality to engineering and information technology to social care. And then there are the much-publicised woes for the logistics sector and consequently for the likes of retailers waiting for supplies or manufacturers needing parts, in terms of the lack of heavy goods vehicle drivers.
The scale of the problem is thrown into stark relief by the fact that skills and labour shortages are persisting even in the face of the grim impact of the coronavirus pandemic on UK unemployment.
The Tories must do better than offer glib remarks based on the ideology of the Johnson Government.
Research conducted by the Scottish Government’s expert advisory group on migration and population has estimated a reduction in net EU migration to Scotland of between 50 per cent and 80% after 2020, as a consequence of the end of free movement.
Mr Foster told The Herald that Scottish employers should “focus on the domestic market” and not point the finger at a lack of EU workers.
This appears to indicate a view that Scottish employers are somehow not trying to recruit domestically, or are not putting sufficient focus on this. It is a baffling perspective. After all, businesses being hampered from creating wealth by a lack of skills or labour will surely have been trying everything they can to fill vacant posts.
There can be a debate around what pay and conditions some jobs offer, and whether they could be made more attractive. However, this is not the big issue, given the labour and skills shortages are in a raft of sectors and across the pay spectrum.
This all brings us back to the fact that there is a major problem – there is a lack of skills and workers. This is a real situation, not an abstract ideological thing.
The Tories need to take a good look at the effects of their actions and examine what might be done to address the deteriorating situation. Even arch-Brexiter Tim Martin, chairman of pubs group JD Wetherspoon, has been appealing recently for the UK Government to enable more people from the EU to be able to come to work in the hospitality sector.
As with the UK Government’s appetite for trade with Commonwealth countries, often it seems in preference to doing business with our EU neighbours, Mr Foster’s views on immigration and the labour market also seem to ignore geography.
The EU is on our doorstep so it has been appealing enough for many citizens of various member states to come to the UK to work over the years and decades. These people have not had to travel huge distances, and have been able to return regularly to visit friends and family. Their participation in the UK labour force has been a huge boost to the country’s economy, and it has been particularly important to Scotland given demographic factors north of the Border.
Now, however, as well as being hampered by Covid-19 border controls in the short term, anyone considering coming to the UK from EU countries to work will have to deal with the depressingly permanent Tory clampdown on immigration.
A survey published earlier this month by the Recruitment & Employment Confederation and accountancy firm KPMG showed the fastest drop in the availability of candidates for permanent posts in the UK since comparable records began in October 1997.
The report states: “Improved demand for workers contributed to an unprecedented fall in the availability of candidates in June. Data showed that the supply of both permanent and temporary staff fell at the quickest rates on record.
“Recruiters noted that increased hiring, Brexit, pandemic-related uncertainty and the furlough scheme all weighed on candidate numbers.”
Neil Carberry, chief executive of the REC, said: “In some key shortage sectors like hospitality, food, driving and IT, more support is likely to be needed to avoid slowing the recovery. That means supporting transitions into growing sectors through unemployment support and new skills programmes, as well as making sure the new immigration system reacts to demand, as promised.”
The survey highlights a raft of sectors in which skills are in short supply, including logistics, manufacturing, construction, accounting and finance, information technology, and engineering.
Paul Sheerin, chief executive of industry body Scottish Engineering, has highlighted on repeated occasions the impact of Brexit on availability of skilled staff for companies in this sector.
One thing that Mr Foster and his colleagues in the Conservative Government need to realise is that this huge and developing problem of labour and skills shortages is not something that can be made to disappear by rhetoric.
Unless something is done fast, the situation will become far worse still.
The Conservatives need to detach themselves at least temporarily from their ideology and dogma, look at the realities on the ground and listen to businesses, and act constructively and quickly to mitigate the damage to the maximum extent possible.
A first step will be an acknowledgement of the problem.
The skills and labour shortages are very real. They are holding back economic recovery and pose a threat to living standards, which are facing enough challenges amid the misery of the coronavirus pandemic without having manmade ones heaped on for good measure.