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UK will not ease immigration barriers to plug skills shortages, says Jenrick

The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, has clashed with business bosses over access to overseas workers, saying companies should train UK staff to fill vacancies rather than relying on people from other countries.

But the head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said the current immigration system meant there was no “momentum for growth”.

Jenrick, who also dismissed reports that the government was considering a move to a more liberal, Swiss-style post-Brexit relationship with the EU, told Sky News the aim was still to reduce overall net migration.

Ending freedom of movement of people was one of the “fundamental principles” of Brexit and could not be adapted, he said.

Asked about the CBI’s call for more, targeted immigration to plug some workforce gaps, Jenrick said: “I don’t agree with that. We listen to the business community, obviously, and we’re aware of certain skills shortages, and we want a pragmatic, sensible relationship with business.”

Some areas had been addressed, such as visas for health workers, Jenrick said: “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.

“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.”

But speaking to Sky straight after Jenrick, Tony Danker, the director general of the CBI, said: “Where’s the momentum for growth? That’s why you have to look at things like immigration or planning or regulation.”

On immigration, he said: “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 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.”

But another change in position was clear to see: On immigration, Keir Starmer held up the recruitment of overseas workers as a sticking plaster solution to the problem of significant worker shortages in the UK.

While he said immigration was part of the UK’s “national story” and that his party would never diminish the contribution it made to the economy, it was a markedly different tone from when Starmer was running to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

Speaking on 31 January 2020, the final day of Britain’s membership of the EU, Starmer was emphatic: “We have to make the case for freedom of movement.”

With Brexit in the rear-view mirror but its complications continuing to plague politicians, Starmer is now walking a fine line.

He is reluctant to give any hint he is prepared to turn on the taps and allow thousands of people into the UK, while simultaneously trying to avoid upsetting Labour MPs who are overwhelmingly pro-migration.

This equivocation was perhaps most telling when he resisted being drawn on whether migration should fall or not, instead arguing against setting “arbitrary numbers”.

The vow to wean businesses off their “immigration dependency” left Nigel Farage proclaiming that “Labour are now to the right of the Tories on immigration”.

Meanwhile, Starmer’s hint of potential “movement in our points-based migration system” was taken by Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former co-chief of staff, to be “signalling further liberalisation of an already-too-generous system”.

Allies of the Labour leader said any fall in immigration numbers would be a side-effect of the focus on homegrown skills.

“We can’t just move from skills gap to skills gap, we have to look after our own people,” said one frontbencher.

Starmer supporters say his shifting stance on immigration is a response to significant changes since spring 2020 – post-Brexit and post-pandemic. But it is also true that the public’s view on immigration has changed in a short period of time.

Half of the public feel positively about immigration, up from one-third in 2014, according to research from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The thinktank found that, for the first time ever, most people with an opinion on the matter wanted immigration levels to stay the same or increase.

And far from being the salient topic immigration was in the run-up to the referendum, just 9% of people saw immigration as a top priority on average over the course of 2022 so far, compared with 44% in 2015.


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