Ministers clash with business leaders over calls to open borders

Clash with ministers over demands to relax immigration rules to ease jobs crisis

Ministers have clashed with business leaders over calls to open Britain’s borders to more foreign workers to help plug crippling staff shortages.

Amid deepening economic gloom as the UK heads into recession, company bosses want the Government to relax its cap on immigration to boost growth and fill staffing gaps — particularly in the retail, hospitality and construction industries. But immigration minister Robert Jenrick slapped down those demands today and insisted that employers struggling to find staff should look to the “domestic workforce” if they are seeking “lower-skilled labour”.

“We want to bring down net migration,” the minister told TalkTV. “It’s something that is very important to the British people and we’re on the side of the British people.”

The row came as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this morning set out his vision to grow the economy in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry in Birmingham. But his attempts to reassure business leaders after last week’s Autumn Statement set out plans to raise taxes by £25 billion were overshadowed by the immigration row.

Mr Sunak told the CBI conference he was “absolutely committed to using our new Brexit freedoms to create the most pro-innovation regulatory environment in the world in sectors like life sciences, financial services, AI and data”. He added: “I want to build a better country where we get inflation down and grow the economy, where we cut NHS waiting times and improve the quality of care and where we invest more in schools and give every child a world-class education and critical to achieving all this is innovation... we need to teach people the skills to become great innovators.”

Speaking on economic migration ahead of Mr Sunak’s speech, CBI boss Tony Danker told the BBC: “The reason why it’s so important is we have literally over a million vacancies in this country, we have 600,000 people who are now long-term unwell, who aren’t coming back to the labour market any time soon.

“That’s why we have to get this shortage occupation list — the list of people that we’re really missing that we aren’t going to get in Britain anytime soon — and we have to get them to plug the gap while we re-calibrate the labour market in the medium term. I’m afraid it’s one of those levers that does help you grow, doesn’t cost money, but I recognise it’s a tough political choice for Conservative politicians.”

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, said her industry has faced labour shortages of 10 per cent since last summer. She added: “Despite heavy investment in training and recruitment initiatives, the outlook has not improved and vacancy rates remain at record levels across the economy as a whole, suggesting we need a new approach. For hospitality, the vacancies mean we cannot operate at full capacity with half of businesses cutting hours, closing on certain days and reducing capacity — that means we are turning away £25 billion in business and the Treasury is losing £7 billion in tax.”

A survey this summer by the British Chambers of Commerce found that more than 60 per cent of companies needed to find more staff in the UK — but more than three-quarters were struggling to hire. Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, said: “We have campaigned to make immigration policy more accessible to skilled talent around the world. It would be a real benefit if we re-looked at that. We need a workforce that is equipped for a digital future and there is not enough home-grown skills to support that.”

He added that the skills shortage challenge was “enormous” with “over 100,000 tech vacancies across the UK”.

A poll, published today by the Heart of London Business Alliance, which represents 600 businesses and 100 leading property owners in central London, found that 95 per cent of respondents said that staff shortages were impacting business performance, with 82 per cent stating that this issue was “a big problem”.

Charlie Gilkes, founder of Inception Group, the operator behind bar and restaurant concepts like Mr Fogg’s, Cahoots and the new Control Room B at Battersea Power Station, said: “The hospitality industry has the potential to light a fire under the economic revival of central London, but we are not trading all the hours we would like to.

“It continues to be incredibly hard to find people who want to work in the sector. In past times, many people have come from Europe to London to work for two or three years, but that pool of workers has diminished since Brexit. We would like to employ more Brits but they aren’t applying in any great numbers.”

Brexiteer Next chief executive Lord Wolfson earlier this month urged the Government to make it easier to allow foreign workers into the UK because of the chronic labour shortages saying this is “not the Brexit I wanted”.

The Tory peer said in a BBC interview: “We have got people queueing up to come to this country to pick crops that are rotting in fields, to work in warehouses that otherwise wouldn’t be operable, and we’re not letting them in.”

The dispute with business leaders came amid a fresh storm over Brexit after weekend newspaper reports suggested the Government was considering negotiating a softer Swiss-style trading relationship with the EU. Switzerland and the EU have bilateral agreements giving the country direct access to parts of the EU’s internal market including the free movement of people.

But while Mr Jenrick said the UK did want to improve its trading relationship with the EU, it did not want to reopen the Brexit debate. “We had a big debate about that as a country, and we settled on one which I think was the right approach,” he said.

“We walked away from freedom of movement, which was not popular with the British public, we ensured that European judges no longer had jurisdiction in the British courts, and we ensured that we weren’t paying money to the EU. Those are the key tenants of our new relationship with the EU.”