UK firms should be “looking to the British workforce” rather than relying on immigrants to fill jobs post-Brexit, a minister has said.
Ahead of its annual conference, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Tony Danker, has called on the government to use immigration to solve worker shortages in the UK, saying it must be “practical” on the issue.
And he said taking this approach would help the UK economy grow.
But immigration minister Robert Jenrick disagreed, telling Sky News’ Kay Burley that companies should be looking closer to home first.
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Brexit stopped many foreign workers being able to easily work in the UK and companies are struggling to recruit – especially in industries such as hospitality which has relied heavily on European staff in recent years.
Despite four quarterly falls this year, overall vacancies remain high at more than 1.2 million.
In August to October 2022 they were 429,000 (54%) above pre-pandemic levels of early 2020, and 32,000 (2.7%) higher than a year ago, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Mr Danker, who will give a speech at the CBI event later, told Sky News: “This should be a very simple system. What are the jobs we need to fill, number one?
“Number two: have we got British workers to fill them? And number three, if we don’t, let’s use immigration on a fixed term basis – just fixed term visas to plug the gaps until British workers are ready to do the jobs.
“That’s not how our immigration system works today, and that’s why it’s not helping us with our growth problem.”
Mr Jenrick said the government would “listen to the business community” and was “aware of certain skills shortages”, adding: “We want a pragmatic, sensible relationship with business.
“But overall, our ambition is to reduce net migration. We think that’s what the British public want. That was one of the driving forces in the vote to leave the European Union back in 2016, and it’s simply not true to say that we’ve adopted a sort of closed door approach since then.”
Mr Jenrick pointed to schemes like visas for health and social care workers, and said more than 300,000 work visas were issued last year “to people who had a certain living standard so they could look after themselves and not rely too heavily on the state” and would cover so-called shortage occupations.
“I think that’s the right approach, rather than drawing on lower skilled workers,” he added.
“And if I was a business manager, I would be looking to the British workforce in the first instance, seeing how I could get local people into my business, train them up, skill them to do the job.”
The minister also said there were five million “economically inactive” people in the UK, “and the government’s first duty is to help as many of them as possible into the workforce”.
Chancellor’s statement ‘incredibly welcome’
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to be in attendance at the Birmingham conference and give a speech of his own focusing on innovation, just days after his chancellor unveiled £25bn of tax raises.
Mr Danker is set to praise the chancellor’s autumn statement as “incredibly welcome” – and thank him for “staying the course” on infrastructure projects such as HS2 rail and the Sizewell C nuclear plant.
But he told Sky News the autumn statement was about stabilising markets, not about how the economy is going to grow – something he hoped the prime minister would talk about later.
And with the UK looking destined for recession and stagnating growth, he will say in his speech that more needs to be done.
“The painful reality about growth is that it can’t be stimulated overnight. That’s what the mini-budget got wrong,” Mr Danker will tell delegates.
Brexit concerns will also be in his speech, with the CBI boss expected to urge changes to regulations and red tape, saying: “I know that some Conservative politicians today feel that this issue is the fault of Europe.
“But the biggest regulatory barriers facing businesses today are based on British laws, created by a British parliament, and administered by British regulators.”
Mr Danker will also point to the ongoing row with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“Get round the table, do the deal, unlock the Trade and Co-operation Agreement. I say to Brexiteers, the best guarantor of Brexit is an economy that grows. Its biggest risk is one that doesn’t,” the CBI chief will say.
“Now I know that some of these things will not be popular with politicians.
“But while, I have no problem with government taking tough choices to bring stability, I want them to also take tough choices for growth.”
‘No to Swiss-style Brexit’
His remarks come amid reports over the weekend that the government is looking to pursue a “Swiss-style” relationship with the EU to free up trade.
Brexiteers have reacted angrily to the rumours, but Downing Street has categorically denied it and Mr Jenrick echoed that sentiment this morning.
He told Sky News: “I don’t know where the story came from in the Sunday papers. It’s not one that we recognise and we’re going to stick with the relationship that we’ve secured.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in improving our trading relations with the European Union or indeed in my sphere, our security and migration partnership with the European Union.
“But we’re not going to reopen the discussions that we had a few years ago. We have a settled view and we’re moving forwards on that basis.”