[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: e-petition 621932, Allow EU nationals to come to the UK to work in hospitality for up to 2 Years; e-petition 594747, Allow disabled people to recruit live-in carers via Health and Care Worker visas; e-petition 565316, Seek Europe-wide short term work permits for the photographic industry; e-petition 584585, Relax immigration rules to enable the UK hospitality industry to recover; e-petition 598603, Create short-term visas for skilled abattoir workers to meet labour shortage; e-petition 599620, Ease immigration rules for construction workers to mitigate impact of Brexit.]
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of a temporary recovery visa for industries experiencing labour and skills shortages.
It is a privilege to serve under your guidance, Mrs Cummins. Before I start, I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the support provided to my office by the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project.
As the UK faces its longest recession on record, it is the Government’s duty to pull every lever they have to prevent hardship and support businesses, workers, families and the economy as a whole. My contention is that to do otherwise would be reckless, foolish and, indeed, heartless. It is great to see the Minister in his place and I welcome him to his important role. My plea today is for him to recognise the clear fact that hospitality and tourism businesses in my constituency in Cumbria are unable to operate to their full capacity because, despite their best efforts, they cannot recruit sufficient workers.
A recent survey by Cumbria Tourism, our excellent destination management organisation, found that 73% of businesses say recruitment is a problem, with more than half citing it as a significant problem. A lack of job applicants is an issue for 78% of employers. As I listen to employers right across Cumbria—the lakes, the dales and other beautiful parts of the county that are in neither—it is painfully clear that the situation is limiting business capacity and profitability, and forcing temporary or partial closures for almost half of all businesses.
Sadly, it is likely that anyone who has visited the Lake district on holiday, particularly in the last couple of years, saw reduced opening hours and capacity in cafés, hotels, restaurants and other visitor attractions, simply because they do not have sufficient staff. Those businesses came through the challenges of covid despite the odds, adapting to the drop in visitor numbers, but they have since been hit by massive problems with recruitment.
The backdrop to the issue is that Cumbria has a smaller than average working-age population, with 61% of people of working age compared with the rest of England’s 64%. It also has lower unemployment than the national average, at 1.5% versus 3.7%. The reality is that we just do not have the people to fill the vacancies. Some 80% of the entire working-age population in the Lake district already works in hospitality and tourism.
In the years that I have been raising the issue with the Government, I have been told repeatedly that the answer lies with the education and training of our UK workforce. A national cross-departmental skills strategy would, indeed, seem to be a reasonable and sensible development. Moreover, we do not want high domestic unemployment while employers take on migrant workers. However, that is not happening, and there is no prospect whatsoever of it happening. Instead, we have very low unemployment locally, so employers in Cumbria have spent the last two years trying a range of things to attract workers, such as increasing wages, adding benefits, providing more training, offering better hours or acquiring accommodation for staff to live in on site.
Cumbria Tourism and individual tourism businesses right across our county continue to work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions, supporting careers events and working with partners to engage directly with schools and colleges. Despite all those initiatives, businesses in our Cumbrian communities are struggling to survive and many are having to close altogether. How tragic it is that we can see the demand and the profit that could be made, or the losses that could be avoided, yet we cannot meet that demand because we do not have the workforce.
Although the lakes and dales of Cumbria have an acute problem, labour shortages are a nationwide challenge. That means that there is not a big reservoir of untapped talent in the UK that might move for work. We therefore need a range of solutions, and short, medium and long-term migration has to be part of that. We have a choice. If we do nothing to change the status quo, many businesses will go under, and then we will have an unemployment problem and rural communities will fall into decline. It could be argued that the market will adapt and that is just the way of things. However, the Government must take responsibility for having interfered to undermine the free market. While land tends not to be all that mobile, capital and labour do tend to be, or at least they were until the Government chose to inflict harm on our economy by cutting off the supply and movement of labour. The party allegedly of the free market has become the dead hand that is killing our economy locally and nationally.
It does not need to be that way. The question is, do we want thriving tourist destinations outside London? Do we want them to continue to be able to offer a fantastic experience for tourists from home and abroad? Do we want that contribution to our economy? Domestic and inbound tourism combined contribute approximately £127 billion a year to the UK economy. Tourism is worth 9% of GDP and is our fourth biggest employer. As we face a self-inflicted Conservative recession, do we think that it might be a good idea to back an industry that is chomping at the bit to mitigate that recession to grow and thrive?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes—and surely it is—then, if we want real, sustainable economic growth and are serious about levelling up, we cannot close our eyes to the stultifying impact of labour shortages. By the way, a Conservative Government that understood and cared about business would not need anyone to tell them that; it would be obvious to them. Such a Government would also know that welcoming migrant workers into areas such as mine, to complement the local workforce, is part of the action that needs to be taken.
The current work visa situation does not support the labour needs of the Lake district. Again, the Government would know that if they listened to Cumbrian businesses. We need a visa like the youth mobility scheme, which is flexible across sectors. Of course, that scheme already exists for places such as Australia and New Zealand, whose populations are fairly small—places that, to misquote “Father Ted”, are small and far away. How about also developing youth mobility visa agreements with countries whose populations are large and much closer geographically? The youth mobility visa would provide greater work protections than sector-based schemes, so that workers are not tied to a specific employer. The Government could easily impose restrictions on workers’ rights to access benefits, to bring in dependants, or to remain in the UK long term.
In my correspondence last month with the former Minister, Tom Pursglove, he stated that that there were ongoing negotiations with both European and wider international partner countries for youth mobility scheme agreements. That was encouraging news. I had a similar response from his predecessor, Kevin Foster, when I met him earlier this year alongside lakes tourism and industry leaders.
Please will the Minister tell us the timescale for those negotiations? Will new schemes be available in time for the beginning of the 2023 season? If the negotiations are stalling because we are seeking bilateral agreements, which may be slowing down progress, could the Minister set out whether unilateral agreements are being considered, given the desperate need of our tourism economy?
The former Minister, the hon. Member for Corby, also stated in his letter that employment is not the primary purpose of the youth mobility visa, and that young people cannot be compelled to work in specific sectors or regions. I did, of course, know those things. However, people who come in through a youth mobility visa will no doubt be seeking employment. We want to give them opportunities in desirable areas such as the Lake district while allowing our economy to benefit. That is exactly how it has happened in the past; migrants have chosen to come to the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales to work, often with accommodation provided.
The Government have made much of the claim that we in Britain can control our borders, but surely we want to control our borders in our own interests, in a way that gives us an advantage, rather than to do ourselves pointless economic harm. The youth mobility scheme enables the Government to control migration and make use of an existing mechanism to bring in those who will allow our businesses to thrive and meet demand, while developing an effective national skills strategy to maximise benefits to the domestic workforce. It is a win-win.
If the Government are not willing to take advantage of that win-win, Cumbrian businesses will demand to know why they are choosing to do active harm to them and our wider economy, rather than taking action that would help them. While employers can make changes to their employment offers—and they really are doing so—a national strategy of skills development, linked to labour market needs, must be led by the Government. The onus cannot be on small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government have to make a choice: if they do not accept that migration is part of the solution to labour shortages, then reduced economic growth, business failure, and poverty is the choice they have made.
In its report, “Promoting Britain abroad,” published last month, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee stated:
“We welcome efforts to create apprenticeships and the new T-Level in Catering in 2023 but believe that more could be done to support business-owners who are short of staff today.”
The Committee then recommended that the Government
“should introduce a temporary recovery visa for industries where there is clear evidence of labour and skills shortages.”
Does the Minister agree with the DCMS Committee on that, and will he introduce a temporary recovery visa?
In the context of a lack of people to fill vacancies, there is, of course, another lever that the Minister could pull. It is staring him right in the face. We have more than 85,000 people who have been waiting more than six months for their asylum claim to be decided and who are banned from working. Many of those awaiting a decision are ready and able to work. It makes absolutely no sense that the Government would prefer them to rely on state support instead of keeping their skills alive.
Forcing people into inactivity is at complete odds with the Government’s stated policy aim to move people away from dependency and into work. Getting into employment at the earliest opportunity will put those people in a much better position to integrate and flourish in the UK when they receive their refugee status—and 76% of them will be given that status by this Government. Giving asylum seekers the right to work would mean that they pay their own way, rather than relying on state finance. It would save the taxpayer millions. There is literally no downside.
Last week, I visited asylum seekers housed in hotels in Cumbria. Some 130 of them are living in limbo, unable to work while they await a decision on their asylum claims. They are from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran—all places with high grant rates. Their professions are catering, architecture, agriculture, construction, aircraft engineering, welding, senior logistics and data analysis, to name just a few. It makes no sense that they cannot work where local employers have vacancies. Public opinion is supportive: a YouGov poll in March found that 81% of the population would support an asylum seeker’s having the right to work after they have been waiting for six months.
It is plainly not the case, as some have said, that that policy would be a pull factor. We are an outlier in having such a foolish policy. Look at all comparable countries in Europe: France grants permission to work after a six-month wait; Germany does so after three months. A six-month wait would safeguard against economic migrants using the asylum system to circumvent the work visa process. Given the current economic climate, the clamouring of our employers, workforce shortages—not just in my communities but elsewhere—and the backlog in the asylum process, will the Minister reconsider the right to work for asylum seekers, as many of his Conservative colleagues believe he should?
There are, of course, other reasons that Cumbria’s workforce has been so drastically reduced in recent times. The other main factor is the rapid growth in second home ownership in our communities and the collapse of the long-term private rented sector into the short-term Airbnb market. Housing for people who are not wealthy in our area has become such a rarity that hundreds who worked in hospitality and tourism have simply been evicted from their homes and ejected from their communities. It is tragic. I hope the Minister will back my amendments to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which would enable us to guarantee sufficient homes for local people and families by limiting the number of second homes and short-term lets in communities like mine.
The Government’s inaction in tackling the housing crisis is compounding their failure to look intelligently and pragmatically at the matter of visas. This all adds up to a situation where 63% of tourism businesses in communities in Cumbria are working below capacity because they cannot find staff. There is demand, but we cannot meet it. The Government have chosen to allow the growth of Airbnb to eject our domestic workforce and counterproductive visa rules to prevent overseas staff from supplementing our small labour pool.
After London, the lakes is the second biggest visitor destination in the country; at the same time, we have one of the smallest populations. Of course we need to bring in outside talent to work alongside our own; otherwise, the Lake district and Yorkshire dales economies just could not function. I ask the Minister to stop hamstringing our economy, listen to our businesses and adopt a pragmatic approach to addressing labour shortages in the UK, especially in rural communities such as mine.
I congratulate Tim Farron on securing the debate. I will come to some themes he spoke about in a minute but, importantly, I want to congratulate the Minister not just on being here but on the work he is doing. I will disaggregate some of my remarks because, clearly, I have worked in the Home Office and I know a little bit about certain aspects of policy, but there are wider issues around labour market skills and shortages that I want to air, and those are what brought me to the debate.
It has been a few years since I have been to the hon. Gentleman’s beautiful constituency. I have a bit more time on my hands now and, provided I can get there, I will, because it is a very beautiful part of the country. However, the debate and the issues he raised are incredibly pertinent to the entire United Kingdom. We have seen labour and skills shortages in certain sectors for as long as I can remember as a Member of Parliament, and that is what we need to address.
I will park home affairs issues—particularly visas and things of that nature—for the moment. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there has already been some work, although not enough, across the whole of Government to put together a wider strategy for the labour market. I have been very vocal about this; when I was Employment Minister, I was one of the few advocates for a labour market strategy for the entire economy. If I may say so, that is something that I have also encouraged our new Chancellor to adopt and champion. We need the Treasury and, in particular, the DWP to be the advocates of a proper, coherent labour market strategy. That is really important, because we see wage inflation in certain sectors. We know there are shortages in the hospitality sector, which the hon. Gentleman pointed to, but we have to be honest that there is not enough training, investment or career progression in certain sectors, and hospitality is one of them.
I remember from my time as Employment Minister that the hospitality sector did a great deal to develop career paths, to make its jobs much more appealing and to invest in the individuals who got jobs in order that, although they might start behind the bar, they could become general managers of hotels, bars or restaurants, and so on. That is really important. My party believes in the ladder of opportunity. It wants to see people develop their careers and be incredibly successful, rather than the haemorrhaging of staff in certain sectors. My major point is not party political: we should encourage the development of a labour market strategy for the whole country, rather than try to find sticking-plaster fixes of visas and things of that nature, which I will come to in a minute.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the immigration system and some of the changes that have been made, which I was involved in as Home Secretary. Ending free movement was a manifesto commitment and part of Brexit, which the British public voted for. We delivered that at the same time as reforming aspects of the immigration system. The points-based immigration system is there to ensure that employers can sponsor individuals, admittedly not in the sectors the hon. Gentleman spoke about but certainly in other critical sectors, including the NHS, which should not be overlooked. The NHS relies on overseas workers, which are important for its health and wellbeing, although of course we need to grow more talent domestically as well. Those are important areas.
I want to touch on another aspect—youth mobility, which is an important way forward. The hon. Gentleman and other colleagues will know about the scheme for seasonal agricultural workers. That enables workers to come to our country for specific and restricted timeframes in key sectors. That enables workers to come to our country for specific and restricted timeframes in key sectors. Only last year, following a shortage, the seasonal agricultural workers list was expanded to include haulage drivers, key workers in agriculture, but not horticulture, and the farming sector when we saw pressures in the economy. It is right that we have the agility and freedom effectively to determine some of those changes while also—and I am sure that the Minister will agree with me on this—demonstrating to the British public that we are able to invest in our own home-grown skills and in particular parts of the country. I saw this in one of my previous roles in Government—not in my last role, but in employment—where we had pockets of unemployment around certain parts of the country. We must invest in those parts of the country too.
I said that I would talk about youth mobility schemes in particular. I have been involved in some of those discussions, and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referenced some of the bigger countries and economies; one of those is India, with which we have an agreement to actively bring over young people who are highly educated and skilled. We still want them to work here; the point of youth mobility is that we can reciprocate, which is really important, with our young people gaining life skills elsewhere in the world and showing what a free and open country we are.
In the interests of time, I will conclude by emphasising that it is quite unfair that a Home Office Minister has to respond to wide-scale labour market issues, which are cross-governmental. One of the biggest takeaways is the need for better integration across Government Departments to address issues with the labour market and skills shortages. When we look at what is happening with the apprenticeship levy, for example, we must ask how we can make that much more effective in different parts of the country. How can it be targeted to key sectors? How can colleges have more bespoke schemes for shortages in the labour market so that we develop a pipeline of young people to come forward? I am a Member of Parliament for a constituency in Essex, Witham. Some 80% of my constituents are employed by small and medium-sized enterprises; that is 20% higher than the national average. By default, we are an entrepreneurial and SME-based part of the country, but at the same time we must look at the needs of many of those small and medium-sized enterprises regarding skills and sustainable employment. That is why I encourage colleagues across the House to work in a united way to look at getting the Government to have a skills and labour market strategy for the entire country.
Thank you, Mrs Cummins. You caught me out, because I was not expecting to be called; I was just doing my duty of jumping up and sitting down again. You are most kind. I congratulate Tim Farron on setting the scene for the debate. The Minister probably knows what I will ask in relation to the fishing sector, because I asked him last week after the debate; his Parliamentary Private Secretary, Shaun Bailey, was there as well. I have sought a meeting with the Minister and he has agreed to it, so hopefully we will have that in the diary over the next period of time. I will specifically focus on that and explain why it is so important, and reflect on my meetings with the previous Minister, Kevin Foster, and how we move forward on the issue.
One UK sector that most people agree has a bright future following Brexit is our fishing industry. Located in often remote coastal communities, the industry has weathered many challenges over many years, including those that are unique to the sector. The fishing fleet based in Portavogie, in my constituency, probably had its heyday during the second half of the ’70s and into the ’80s. Good profits were made and shared with the crew, which reflected the hard work and long hours that fishermen put into their profession. My brother is one of them; he worked the fishing boats in Portavogie over a period of time. I could never understand how the guys could get into the fishing boats, never mind get out of them, but that is by the way. It is a dangerous profession. Being a fisherman carried with it a great deal of pride, but something went wrong. Fisheries management policies were applied that undermined the industry; with hindsight, it is debatable whether those policies were right or wrong. Nevertheless, the policies succeeded in reducing most crew wages. Combined with alternative occupations, this led to a situation developing in the 1990s where there were more crew vacancies than there were crew to fill them. That is a wee bit of background about the sector before I put forward some ideas.
Fishing vessel decommissioning schemes released some crew who found positions in other fishing vessels. At that time, it was migrants from eastern Europe who, although inexperienced in commercial fishing, offered a breathing space when they were recruited to fill the crewing gaps. Then, trawler owners from Portavogie, Kilkeel and Ardglass followed the lead of owners elsewhere in the UK by beginning to recruit new crews from overseas. Those crews were Filipinos, who became a very important part of fishing for nephrops in the Irish sea and the Clyde.
The fishing fleet has never pretended that overseas crews offer a long-term replacement for domestic recruits. I understand exactly that it is not a long-term solution, but it is a short-term solution. It would be great if young people from my constituency were going into fishing, but they are not, and neither are young people from Kilkeel or Ardglass. Anne McLaughlin will speak for Scotland shortly, and Liz Saville Roberts will speak for Wales. I think both of them will endorse that point.
Overseas crews have filled critical roles, which has kept a large part of the UK’s fishing fleet at sea and, in turn, maintained supplies of domestically caught seafoods to markets at home and overseas. Overseas fishing crews have largely been recruited to the UK on the basis of transit visas. I understand that transit visas were never intended for that purpose. Transit visas permit a crew member to join a vessel that is departing the UK and working outside UK territorial waters. It has generally been accepted that the majority of time on a fishing vessel at sea has to spent beyond the UK’s—
One fishing practice that the Minister might propose is for those vessels to keep their foreign-originating crew offshore, beyond the 12 miles of territorial waters, but that is both dangerous and inhumane.
The right hon. Lady illustrates the issue very clearly, as well as the concerns that we have. I think there are solutions that all of us here can support. I suspect that, besides fishing vessel owners, many ship operators would find the 12-mile limit challenging, as she mentioned. That is certainly not a new issue.
For well over a decade, the fishing industry has sought to engage with the Home Office to resolve the ambiguities around the matter. Ten years ago, a concession was granted: the option to move crew on to work permits. That was not widely taken up. The situation has changed again, not least because EU crew have left the industry, so there is a dependence on non-UK and non-EU crew.
Geographically, areas such as the Clyde have nowhere outside 12 miles. I am told that, towards the end of 2021 and early 2022, staff from Border Force visited Campbeltown, where they reminded fishing vessel owners about their roles, and effectively told the owners that overseas crew would have to go home. As a result, boats have been tied up and some have been sold. On
I arranged a meeting with the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Torbay, and we discussed concessions granted to other marine operators, specifically those engaged in the construction of offshore wind farms and the owners of well boats. The latter are largely Norwegian-owned ships that transport fish between salmon farms in the west of Scotland, which are all within the 12-mile limit. Will Minister tell us the difference between a well boat carrying salmon smolt inside the 12-mile limit and a trawler carrying prawns in the same area? I do not quite understand that, but if we have a meeting, perhaps we can develop that argument constructively and find a solution. For me, it is all about solutions. It is never about the negativity; it is about the solutions. It is about what we can do to make it better. We ask the Minister for that meeting.
The industry is indebted to the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mark Spencer, for his early intervention with the Home Office on this matter. A six-month window has been agreed during which trawler owners are encouraged to pursue the sponsorship route for fishing crew, and the industry is working on that. Although that avenue is being pursued by some, questions are being asked about its applicability to the fishing fleets, especially in respect of the Government’s immigration targets.
Fishing vessel operators accept the need for a scheme that is transparent, complies with international law and affords protection to all fishing crew, especially those from overseas. There is no question about what they are trying to achieve. Fishermen and fisherwomen are skilled professionals, as the Government recognised in early 2021, following a recommendation from the Migration Advisory Committee. However, despite the committee’s further advice that deckhands be added to the shortage occupation list, the then Home Secretary declined to approve the recommendation, and stated that more time was needed to examine the impact of the covid pandemic on UK employment levels. Again, I honestly believe that the fishing organisations that I and other Members represent have a working solution. The Minister’s PPS, the hon. Member for West Bromwich West, is not involved in the debate, but he knows that only too well, so he knows what I am going to say. I also note that it is accepted that skills can differ across the professions on the Government’s shortage occupation list, with one being English language fluency. However, the same standard of English is required across all occupations, which is something that we urgently need to examine.
I am nearly finished and am going really fast—I hope Hansard can follow my flow of words. Florence Eshalomi says that Jim Shannon gets more words to the minute than any other MP, and today may be one of those occasions.
Leaving the EU creates opportunities for our fishermen, yet they are still competing with EU fishermen. The Home Office’s refusal to engage with the fishing industry and consider a bespoke or flexible approach to the issues around overseas crews compares less than favourably with the approach taken by others, such as the Dublin Government. In Ireland, a partnership approach has recently resulted in a new policy being unveiled. When we meet the Minister, we might be able to share this example, which is a constructive one. Less than a month ago, on
The fishing industry remains focused on creating an economically viable sector that will offer financial rewards in order to reflect the hard work that the fishing sector does. After decades of challenges, that ambition will not be met overnight, which is why officials need to work with the industry to develop a visa system that allows skilled overseas crew to pursue their professions on UK fishing vessels in a controlled, transparent and law-abiding way. That would allow our fishing industry to develop its full potential, benefiting the economic life of our coastal communities as well as the whole of the United Kingdom.
What I have said today about Northern Ireland is reflected for our fishermen in Scotland, Wales and England, and I honestly believe in my heart that we have a solution. I know the meeting last week was about a different thing, but none the less I took the opportunity to appeal to the Minister’s good nature and will. I hope to have a meeting shortly, so that collectively we can move forward together in a partnership fashion and solve this problem. If we can do that, it will be a big day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I thank Tim Farron for securing a debate of such importance for my city of York. I will focus mainly on the hospitality sector, but I will also stray into a few other sectors where we are certainly experiencing skills shortages.
To realise York’s potential productivity, and ultimately the value of the pound, we cannot stand still, which is why the debate is timely. We need to move forward by putting pragmatism ahead of ideology in order to understand the reality of particular sectors and local economies across the country, to focus on the data, which speaks so loudly, and to listen to sector leaders across our communities to ensure that their aspirations for their industries can be realised, and that we are not left short of potential opportunities that people want to bring to the economy.
On Friday, I met York’s hospitality sector leaders—people from hotels, visitor attractions, restaurants and others—to talk about the challenges that we face in our city. Of course, the issue of skills shortages was high on the agenda. We have 1,605 enterprises in York’s hospitality sector, which employs 20,000 people, two thirds of them part time. It is growing, which is encouraging. Our “Skills for Employment” strategy—a 10-year plan for skills that Lee Probert, the principal of York College, assembled for our city—highlights the fact that the sector grew by 7.8% between 2017 and 2020, so we have a great opportunity to consolidate it. However, many places cannot open their doors full time, and with the cost of living crisis hitting hard, businesses are struggling and we need to ensure that we get the labour. They live hand to mouth with the innovation that they are able to bring. They got to the summer, got to half term, and they are going to get to Christmas, but, come January, they are worried not only about the great freeze, but about the freeze in business itself. They are really worried about that, and I hope the Minister will talk to his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the cliff edge that the sector faces.
People in the sector do not want to limp from season to season. They want to be able to plan. When they plan, they can put in place their skills strategy. When they plan, they have the headspace and can grow their industry, whether in the supply chain or directly facing their customers. We therefore have to build resilience into the system. We are fortunate. We have around 40,000 students across York, which helps to address some of the capacity issues, but not by itself.
Some businesses are doing incredible work. The Grand in York has taken refugees from Ukraine and supported people into employment, ensuring that there is a labour supply. It has also provided wider skills, including language courses, and has provided support even if people then move elsewhere in the sector. That is a positive sign of a good employer with the ability to invest, but not every employer has the margins to be able to do that.
In York, we have a skills strategy for 10 years in the city, but it will not be enough when we are near 100% employment. That is why we need to look further afield to ensure that we have a supply of labour coming into the city.
The Yorkshire hospitality sector has put together a three to five-year plan, looking at the cliff edges in front of it and highlighting the fact that only 5% of young people see a future in the hospitality sector. Again, we need to ensure that we have a supply of labour. The sector is using innovation as much as possible, with skills camps and academies in order to deliver so much more, but the workforce is not sufficient. That is why I turn, as other colleagues have, to the report by the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It highlights the scale of vacancies across the economy now, so we know we cannot stand still on this issue.
The youth mobility scheme is excellent. It gives young people the opportunity to come to the UK, learn the language and skills and have vital life experience. When we look at the list of countries we have heard about today—Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Hong Kong, India, Canada, South Korea, Monaco, San Marino and Taiwan—we do not have any EU countries on that list. With regard to the aim of bringing 1,000 people over to the UK, if we compare San Marino’s population of 34,000 with the EU’s 446.8 million, the Government’s thinking seems to demonstrate a disparity. We need the movement of young people to be expedited so that they come and support our economy and our labour market, and see that investment in their future and our future, too. It is a perfect scheme that would work for my city of York, where people can really enjoy the sector.
We do have a challenge, and I am going to be very straight and honest about this. As has been mentioned in this debate, we need sufficient housing, and we need to address that urgently because of the cost of living in York and the Airbnb situation. The flipping of private rented accommodation into Airbnbs means that we need to ensure we have suitable housing for people when they come and give to our local economies. We must have systems in place to support the city.
I want to highlight an opportunity to the Minister. I know he is working hard on the issue of those seeking asylum in the UK, but these people come with skills. That is why I ask him to look at the shortage occupation list to see whether we can passport people with skills into the economy, so that we can utilise the skills that people bring and ensure that we are not experiencing labour shortages in certain areas.
York is about to receive 450 people into a hotel in the city. They will get an incredibly warm welcome and lots of support from the infrastructure within York. We will provide people with a home for as long as they are with us. However, if they are not able to work, that is a missed opportunity for them and for us. That is why we need to ensure that we enable people to both utilise and gain skills while they are with us. We recognise that people need time to get oriented and to heal their trauma, but engaging in good employment will give them the opportunities that they need and that our city needs. It is such a waste of talent, skill and life if people are just waiting in hotels for their claims to be processed. We want that process to be expedited, but while they wait, we welcome their employment across our industries. Those people then build relationships in the city, which gives greater security not only to them but to all of us. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind and ensure that there is more opportunity for those individuals in future.
The tourism and hospitality sector has the advantage that it can use its resources to pay staff slightly more than other sectors. As a result, people have been sucked out of the care sector. Indeed, I will end by speaking about the care sector. The scale of vacancies is affecting the delivery of social care and the ability to discharge patients from hospital. That means people cannot get in the front door and we have an NHS crisis. Not being able to bring care workers into the UK because they do not fit into the points-based system seems completely ludicrous and self-defeating.
I trust that the Minister will look specifically at social care and the opportunity to bring highly skilled staff to the UK to deliver that vital role, so that all our constituents can have the care that they need, as we would expect. Not only are we in a crisis now, with 165,000 vacancies in social care nationally; given that 28% of care workers are over the age of 55, will have a greater crisis in future. That must be sorted out. I trust that the Minister will look at ways in which we can bring in young people and other people with skills, albeit for the short term, until we have the labour supply. However long it takes, we need to address those crises.
I am calling for pragmatism over ideology. I am sure the Minister understands that our communities must be heard and that the skills they require must be met. It is for him to deliver that.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate Tim Farron on securing this timely debate. Many, if not all, of us are aware that the hard Brexit the Government are pursuing is causing huge damage across many industries. I, too, want to focus on labour shortages as they affect the larger fishing vessels in Wales, just as they do beyond, as we have already heard.
I support local employment on Welsh fishing vessels, as would every local MP, but the simple truth is that the people are not there to do those jobs at present. Fishing vessels therefore need to be able to recruit from abroad to fill the gap in the short and medium term. Much like elsewhere in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, the fishing fleet is being reduced. I do not think that is something any of us wants to be seen to be presiding over. Since 2018, it has been reducing by about 6% per year in Wales, possibly as the result of a combination of an ageing workforce, high costs of entry and now a restrictive visa system.
I want to raise the case of my constituent Mark Roberts, as it puts under the microscope something that is affecting a number of fishing vessels. He is a fisherman from Nefyn, a town near where I live, which has a long and proud tradition of both onshore and offshore fishing; it even supplied captains for whaling vessels back in the day. Mr Roberts has been trying to recruit fishing crew members from outside the European economic area. In the past, he has employed local crew, a number of whom have now gone on to own their own vessels. He would like to continue to employ a local crew, but the plain truth is that they are just not there. He faces not being able to go out to sea and operate as a business unless he has a sufficient number of crew members.
Mr Roberts told me that one of the main barriers to employment is the written English language element of the skilled worker visa, for which fishing crew members are eligible. He wanted me to raise the case of a Ghanaian fisherman who recently failed the B1 English exam for a fourth time. He is a highly skilled, highly motivated fisherman and he continues to persevere with the test. However, it has caused additional delay and cost for both him and Mr Roberts.
Mr Roberts and the rest of the crew have been trying to tutor him, in the hope that he will be able to pass next time. They also hope that the Home Office will relax the rule and recognise that written English is not a key skill for this vocational area. Does someone need written English to be a proficient crew member on a fishing vessel, when there is a skipper alongside? If we want our crews and our vessels to survive into the future, is that a skill we need, here and now?
The experience is, of course, far from unique. The fishing industry says that the high bar for English, particularly the written element, goes far beyond that required of deckhands. Mr Harry Wick, chief executive officer of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation, gave evidence to the all-party parliamentary group on fisheries. He told us that we need a vision of evolution for fisheries. There is no short-term fix, but they still need crew and, in the meantime, those crew will need to come from abroad.
Earlier this year, Seafish, the public body supporting the seafood industry, noted that only one person had successfully applied using the skilled worker visa route. Will the Minister tell me how many fishing crew workers from abroad have used that route since then? [Interruption.]
Because of my cough, I will come to a conclusion fairly shortly and will not be able to say everything I want to say, but I want to close on one thing that Mr Roberts told me. He has spent £17,000 in immigration solicitor fees to recruit crew members, because he is an honest man who wants to follow the post-Brexit rules to the letter. He wants to avoid the enormous fines he would face if he were to operate within 12 nautical miles of the UK with crew members who have transit rather than skilled worker visas.
This situation cannot continue. If we are serious about wanting this vocational area to operate into the future, I agree that we must look at careers, skills, apprentices and training into the future, but they are not here in the here and now. If I could meet the Minister to discuss how we can find a solution for honest, good, well-established family businesses like that of Mr Roberts, I would be very grateful.
I am pleased to serve under your chairwomanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank Tim Farron—he comes from a beautiful part of England—for highlighting this crucial topic. Much like a lot of Scotland, his constituency faces the problems of rurality and the challenges of supporting a hospitality industry plagued by labour shortages.
It has been interesting to hear the many views on how we can tackle the issue of labour shortages post Brexit and post covid, especially given the divergence in the types of constituencies we represent, each with its own unique set of labour challenges, be they in agriculture, hospitality, fishing—we have heard extensively about fishing today—transport, construction, health and social care, logistics or food processing. The list goes on, but the core issue at heart remains the same. We have witnessed the doors slam on free movement, which is now a dirty word—well, two dirty words—for both the UK Government and the official Opposition. In addition, the global pandemic saw more than 1.3 million EU workers return home. When they finally thought about coming back, they were locked out by this Government’s hugely regressive post-Brexit points system.
If we had stayed in the single market, as the majority of people in Scotland voted to do, free movement would be the perfect solution to the many labour shortages across these islands. It will come as no surprise to hear that I am confident that Scotland will rejoin the EU—and that means the single market—as an independent member soon. Until then, we fully support the call for solutions to labour shortages through visa schemes, including a temporary recovery visa.
This is a crisis of the Government’s making. It was completely avoidable. It is a crisis caused by policy, politics and a rhetoric on immigration that is fuelling the right, stirred up by inflammatory language from the Home Secretary. I cannot tell hon. Members how shocked and disgusted I was to hear the Home Secretary refer to an “invasion” of immigrants to these shores. An invasion—really? “Invasion” conjures up images of insects, wild animals, wars and battles. It is far removed from the reality of the humanitarian crisis that we are witnessing in the channel.
The Minister could argue that the Home Secretary was not talking about migrants per se, just those crossing the channel—I do not think he will—but it is not acceptable, whoever she was referring to. The Home Secretary must understand that using that kind of language and stoking up fear about one set of migrants has an impact on all migrants. That includes the current and future migrant workers that the UK is absolutely dependent on.
It has taken empty shelves and closed restaurants to bring this issue to the public’s attention, but business leaders have been warning the Government for quite some time about the dire situation that they would find themselves in because of these shortages. The British Chambers of Commerce has said that of 5,700 businesses, more than 60% need to find more staff in the UK. Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, pointed out that one in five workers has not returned after furlough, giving the sector a 10% vacancy rate. She agreed with the recommendations from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee for a temporary recovery visa, and said:
“This would go a long way to helping recruitment challenges and would support the sector’s ability to provide fantastic service to all its customers. We would strongly urge the government to consider its introduction as part of a pro-growth review of immigration policy.”
Three quarters of UK businesses have said that they are experiencing difficulties filling vacancies. I have received numerous letters from businesses in my constituency that are struggling to get staff and asking what exactly the Government plan to do about it. There is another reason to ensure that we fill those vacancies. As the CBI said recently,
“Guarding against skills and labour shortages can…help keep inflation in check”.
At a time when the cost of living is going through the roof, should the Government not heed that advice?
The Scottish Government have tried to help the UK Government out. The First Minister even offered to split responsibility for immigration policy with them, and proposed a Scottish visa, but that was refused. It would solve some of the economic problems in Scotland, but it clearly does not fit the ideology that says that if the Scottish National party suggests it, it must be wrong. The Scottish Government are determined to address these issues but have very limited powers available to them. They are proposing a rural visa pilot, which offers a community-driven approach to migration that can respond to the distinct needs of remote, rural and island areas.
We want to welcome people, not ward them off, because people make communities and keep our economy growing. It makes no sense to stubbornly believe that we can just do everything ourselves, especially when our rural communities—much like that of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, I am sure—face population decline.
Many of the initiatives from the UK Government are very temporary. I understand that the solution is not complete permanence, but they are so temporary that they offer no real certainty for businesses or workers. They are simply sticking plasters. That is the crux of the issue with so much policy at the moment—the short expiry dates. I have had milk that has lasted longer than some of the previous Cabinet’s plans. I hope this one does better.
Business, industry and the workers themselves need certainty. I have been trying to hammer home that point in relation to the six-month energy relief scheme that is on the table for SMEs, public sector organisations and charities. They simply cannot operate in weeks and months. Last year, we saw a three-month visa offered to HGV drivers. What good is a three-month visa? Who in their right mind would move to a country where they face being kicked out in 12 weeks’ time? That is a point that I would like to make to Labour colleagues. I am not going to go into how crushed I felt when I heard the Labour leader say that we have too many migrants working in the NHS, though I know I was not as crushed as the migrant workers themselves. Today, Labour’s shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, said that if they got into power, they would keep migrant workers in the NHS until they had enough home-grown workers trained for the health service.
I worked in the NHS for 20 years and all I will say is that I know the value of working alongside people who have trained across the world. They bring their skills into the NHS, and it has been a privilege to work alongside them. I think we should aspire to recognise the skills they bring and the opportunities that provides for our patients.
I really do thank the hon. Lady for that. There will be so many migrant workers who have worked their backsides off in the NHS, especially during the pandemic, and who will be devastated about what has been said, but the hon. Lady’s remarks go some way towards balancing that out.
I have to ask: what kind of arrogance does it take to believe that doctors, nurses, radiographers and others are so desperate to be here in the UK that they will fill the positions that we desperately need to be filled in the NHS, knowing that when they are surplus to requirements, they will simply be dispensed with because both Tory and Labour Governments would much prefer the jobs to go to those who were born here? Employment is a two-way thing. Migration is a two-way thing. If we do not meet migrants halfway, they will not come and we will not be able to look after people. Everybody needs to think clearly about that.
We need solutions and ideas. One solution that has been put to the Home Office, certainly by my party—indeed some of my colleagues have private Members’ Bills on it—and other colleagues today, is to allow asylum seekers to work. We are facing labour shortages, yet we have tens of thousands of people who are already here, desperate to contribute and integrate with our communities, but they are cut off and left to rely on meagre handouts from the state.
The current situation plays into the hostile environment rhetoric so well. To paint asylum seekers as economic migrants here for benefits is just not true. Nobody wants to live on less than £6 a day, and people should not be put in that situation. Given that 76% of asylum applications are allowed on the initial decision, not to mention the many more who win their appeals, we are putting thousands of people in an enforced limbo when they could easily be contributing, paying tax and filling the gaps in our labour market.
I would like to know if the Government have any plans to consider this eminently sensible solution. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, there is no downside. If the Minister’s answer is, “No, we are not going to consider this solution,” he must see a downside, and he must tell us what he thinks that is. My preference, and my fervent hope—I saw him nodding his head earlier when it was mentioned—is that he agrees to look into allowing asylum seekers to work and plug the damaging gaps that are holding the economy back.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the second time in two days, Mrs Cummins—it is truly a privilege for me. I thank Tim Farron for securing this important debate, and other right hon. and hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. I particularly thank my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell for her insightful speech. Her clarion call for pragmatism over ideology is something I hope everyone in this Chamber will support.
I would like to set out the Labour party’s approach to work-based migration in the UK. In a nutshell, we support the principle of a points-based system for migrant workers. I will not need to remind hon. Members that it was a Labour Government that introduced the points-based system in 2008 for immigration from outside the European Union. We are clear that there will be no returning to the free movement of labour that was a feature of our membership of the European Union, but we are equally clear that we need to build on and improve the points-based system currently in place. Our long-term ambition is to ensure that all businesses, in every sector, and our public services recruit and train as much home-grown talent as possible to fill vacancies, before they look overseas. For instance, we need to train more home-grown doctors, hence our commitment to doubling the number of clinical placements and to setting out a five to 10-year workforce plan, which is desperately needed when we consider the 7 million person waiting list and the huge issues with workforce shortages and challenges. We know that if we just turn off the tap of migrant labour, without the appropriate workforce structures and adequate training and recruitment in place, our public services will deteriorate and our businesses will struggle to meet our wider economic ambition to make, buy and sell more in Britain. In the end, it becomes a crutch, with more and more jobs eventually disappearing overseas.
Let me address the comments made by the spokesperson for the SNP, Anne McLaughlin. I did not hear the comments today from the shadow Health Secretary, my hon. Friend Wes Streeting, but I know that our policy is very clear. We want to maximise opportunities for home-grown talent—doctors, nurses and care workers—but we absolutely recognise that we have to get the balance right. Where we have migrant workers playing vital roles, that is what we want to continue to have, but we want at the same time to maximise opportunities for home-grown talent. It is not an either/or question—a binary question. It is a “both …and”. It is a question of balancing—not turning the taps off here and turning the taps on somewhere else.
I appreciate the clarification, but it was quite clear that the leader of the Labour party said there were too many migrant workers in the NHS. The shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care seemed to be saying—I cannot remember the exact words, but obviously I will go and look again—“Yes, okay, we’ll allow migrant workers to be our doctors, nurses, whatever, until we have got enough of our own.” What does that say to them? “You are here when we need you, but when we no longer need you…” I support training people who want those jobs—training people here. But what does that say to those migrant workers who have committed themselves to our NHS? “As soon as we have got enough of our own home-grown people, we are going to kick you out.”
I think it would be a caricature of whatever comments were made to say that we are going to somehow stop people who are already here being here. That seems to be the logical extrapolation of what the hon. Lady is arguing, and I do not think that anybody would argue that. We value the workforce that we have, but we also want to build and create more opportunities for our own, home-grown talent. I am sure that that is something we can all agree on.
Let me turn away from the health and care sector for a moment and look at some of the issues that have been raised about the agricultural sector. We cannot have a situation such as we have had in the farming sector where 30,000 pigs are being slaughtered and £60 million-worth of crops are being burned, which is what happened over the past year. We also know that the construction industry lost 175,000 jobs in 2020-21, and that has had a big impact in the form of projects being slowed down. We know that, in September 2021, UKHospitality called for the Government to include the hospitality sector in temporary work visa schemes in the aftermath of covid-19 and reflecting the need to boost our economy. That call was of course echoed in the report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that was published on
We recognise these challenges and we feel that the way to find solutions is to go to the heart of the system so that it is better positioned and placed to deliver results on a sector-by-sector basis—pragmatism over ideology, as has already been said. The Opposition are well aware of the flaws in the current points-based system. We feel that the Government are failing to balance the need to encourage businesses to recruit and train home-grown talent with the need to use migrant labour to address short-term pressure points in the labour market.
The fundamental weakness is that the Government’s economic migration strategy is not joined up, so they will struggle to meet their economic and public-service priorities. For instance, we feel that the Migration Advisory Committee and the Skills and Productivity Board are not as integrated as they could be in making decisions on the shortage occupation lists.
We believe that the way to understand the type of short-term support that sectors require, for instance access to temporary work visas, is to get the system working properly, with more flexibility. At the heart of that should be a three-way dialogue, led and convened by the MAC, drawing together representatives from employers speaking for the sector, trade unions, and relevant Government Departments, to look at the sectors on the Migration Advisory Committee’s shortage occupation lists in detail. That dialogue would be the mechanism through which decisions are made around the short-term visa schemes, such the seasonal worker scheme, the youth mobility scheme, and new ideas, such as the temporary recovery visa, which is being debated here today.
The three-way working group would not only look at the shortage occupation lists but set conditions that companies that have sponsorship licences would need to meet on workers’ rights. We are worried that the current points-based system is also failing when it comes to the enforcement of labour standards.
We know, for instance, that Nepalese health workers, Indonesian fruit pickers, and care workers from the Philippines and Ghana, are at serious risk of exploitation through recruitment agencies charging fees, leading to migrant workers ending up in illegal debt bondage through having to repay those recruitment fees. Many of those recruitment agencies operate abroad, and it would be good if the Government were able to investigate whether work could be done by British embassies overseas to look out for problems and red-flag agencies that are suspected of nefarious practices.
We must also clamp down on illegal practices in the UK. Of course, it is illegal to charge migrant workers recruitment fees in Britain, but the Association of Labour Providers said that some employers in the UK are still demanding that workers pay for their recruitment fees. We need solutions to those issues.
Part of the challenge is that, under the past 12 years of successive Conservative Governments, the number of labour market inspectors has decreased to one inspector for every 20,000 workers, when the International Labour Organisation recommends one for every 10,000. I hope the Minister will share his thoughts on that ratio, and whether he believes that it will enable the Government to crack down on exploitation.
In 2019, the Conservative party committed to merging the three enforcement bodies—the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ national minimum wage enforcement teams—into one enforcement body. Perhaps the Minister could confirm what progress is being made on that, or is it perhaps another broken manifesto promise?
The main agency involved in the welfare of seasonal workers is the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. The scheme operators, which are responsible for recruitment, must have a licence from the authority and can have it revoked if they failed to abide by certain standards. However, the regulator does not routinely carry out inspections on farm premises, and some critics say it lacks the resources to police abuses of workers’ rights.
We also need to understand, for seasonal workers specifically, what action is being taken by the Government to ensure that the 40,000 businesses with sponsorship licences from the GLAA are being properly regulated by HMRC to ensure that they maintain high employment standards.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of another issue, which the Daily Record in Scotland revealed the other day, that delivery drivers for Just Eat, Deliveroo and others—I cannot remember which of the others it was, so I had better not say any names—are able to rent out their accounts? They are told that they are responsible for ensuring that the person they rent it out to is allowed to work and has passed basic health and safety checks, and that is obviously not happening. People are having meals delivered, and do not know if that person has passed the checks that they should have. Just as importantly, some of the workers renting those accounts are not allowed to work and are being exploited. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the agencies he mentioned should be able to look into that as well?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is a vital role to play here, in terms of regulation and enforcement. Our major concern is twofold. There is a bit of a mixture of all of these agencies not necessarily co-ordinating together. There are three main agencies, so, first, let us have a single enforcement body. Secondly, the number of labour market inspectors should meet ILO standards. It is currently one to 20,000 and it should be one to 10,000. Those would be major steps in the right direction, and could be the start of cracking down on the issue the hon. Lady rightly raises.
Maintaining standards is not just important for the wellbeing of migrant workers and preventing undercutting, it is also good for employers, as we need to make Britain an attractive place to work, not least in sectors such as food and farming, where we are clearly more reliant on migrant workers than in other sectors. The National Farmers Union deputy president, Tom Bradshaw, told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that, although a 30,000 quota for seasonal workers visas in 2021 was a lifeline for the industry, it has not been big enough.
We also know that the challenge for the sector is not just seasonal but year-round. We understand that there are recruitment challenges in relation to the short-term nature of these visas, which the Government must look at closely. Therefore, we need to be sure that the working conditions attached to the visas are as attractive as possible, in order to attract the workers that we need, and to avoid undercutting.
Of course, where sectors and businesses are given permission to recruit from overseas, we need to see commitment to long-term workforce planning. How, for instance, would a company plan to invest in home-grown talent in the long term? What is it doing to invest in research and development, in modernising its technology and machinery to boost productivity? Does it have a skills strategy? Those are the questions that should be asked of companies, as a quid pro quo and part of the conversation about being given shortage occupation and other permissions to bring labour from overseas. What is it doing to show its long-term workforce plan? How is it boosting productivity? Those are the questions that Government should ask. There should be a proper dialogue, rather than pulling arbitrary numbers out of the air within the Westminster bubble.
Are the Government asking for workforce plans from companies that benefit from the shortage occupation lists? If not, perhaps the Minister might like to say a few words on that. Those are the questions that Labour will ask, as and when we enter Government, committed as we are to ensuring that our points-based system strikes the right balance between incentivising employers to train and recruit locally with the right to recruit internationally where required.
I look forward to the Minister’s responses to my questions, in addition to those raised by other right hon. and hon. Members.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I am grateful to Tim Farron for calling the debate. As others have said, he represents one of the most beautiful parts of the country and one of my favourite destinations. Any help we can give him to ensure that his hospitality and tourism sector continues to thrive is a priority for me.
I am grateful for comments and speeches from other right hon. and hon. Members, and will try to answer as many as I can in the time available. I am particularly pleased to see my right hon. Friend Priti Patel make her debut in Westminster Hall after many years. I know from my new colleagues at the Home Office how much she is missed. I was pleased to hear her thoughts today.
I will begin by addressing the specific question of a temporary recovery visa, and then broaden out. We have had a wider debate about how we handle labour market shortages, the balance between migration and our domestic labour market and how we train people here in the country to meet those challenges. That includes how to balance bringing people into the country versus the significant issue of more than 5 million economically inactive people, and how we can help those individuals back into the labour market, whether they be older people who left the labour market during the pandemic, or younger people who need to get back or into work for the first time.
It is important to say at the outset that an impression has been given during the debate that the visa system is highly restrictive, enabling few people to come into the country, and that essentially migrant labour has been cut off as a result of policy decisions. That really is not true. We have a comparatively flexible work visa system, and the Home Office granted over 330,000 work-related visas in the year ending June 2022, including—I will come to this in more detail in a moment—just over 96,000 health and care worker visas to support the NHS. We have more than doubled the number of eligible occupations for skilled worker visas so that more than 60% of jobs in the UK economy are now eligible. Over 48,000 employers are now on the sponsor register, and we encourage others to join.
We have to set today’s debate, and the important and valid points that have been raised, within that context. As a country, we are welcoming very significant numbers of people to work and live here as a result of our visa system. Of course, there can be a legitimate debate about who we are inviting in, and whether we address specific concerns, but it is not correct to suggest that we have a highly restrictive system, or that that has been a consequence of leaving the European Union.
In general, I do not think that a temporary recovery visa is the right approach. The points-based system is the right way forward. It supports UK businesses to recruit workers with the skills that they need from around the world, and it is broader than the previous immigration system, with many more jobs now eligible, stretching across all the key sectors of the British economy, thanks to the good work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham did during her time in office.
We have a large and growing domestic labour force, which includes UK workers, the millions of people who applied successfully under the EU settlement scheme, and visa-holders with general work rights. It is important to stress that, over the course of the last year or so, we have also had tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Afghan citizens. In fact, well over 100,000 are now living in the United Kingdom, a good deal of whom want to work. We should encourage them into paid employment for many reasons, not least so that we can help them to make fruitful lives here and ensure that they are not living in hotel accommodation, which too many still are. That has been the subject of other debates elsewhere in Parliament this week.
Many of the sectors that have called for a recovery visa, some of which have been discussed today, including hospitality, haulage and construction—all sectors for which I have sympathy; I have been involved in some of them in recent years as a Minister—have long-standing recruitment challenges, stretching back many years. Some of them are essentially calling for a general immigration route, allowing recruitment at or near the minimum wage for roles that have only relatively short work-based training requirements. It could be a choice for this country to welcome workers to that type of role, and other parties may make different choices from us, but it is important not only that we are guided by the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations, but that we think carefully about the skill and salary thresholds of people coming into this country.
That is for a number of reasons. One reason is so that we can ensure that people who are looking for work in this country are encouraged into those jobs. As Members of Parliament, I am sure that we have all come across employers in our constituencies who in the past have reached too easily for international workers rather than trying to recruit, retain and skill up British workers. I have certainly encountered that in my constituency, which has a good deal of employers in the food processing and agricultural sectors.
Another reason is that we want to encourage the British economy to be more productive. Employers should ensure, where possible—it is not appropriate in every sector—that we are better at automation and have a more innovative economy, not one that is simply hooked on the drug of relatively low-paid and low-skilled migrant workers. I appreciate that in sectors such as care, and perhaps hospitality and tourism, talk of automation and innovation is not as relevant. I will come to some of the work that we have been doing in those sectors in a moment.
I want to stress that some of the businesses we have been talking about, particularly in hospitality and tourism, although undoubtedly they have been through an extremely difficult period during the pandemic and our recovery from it, have benefitted from substantial Government support, whether through the business support scheme or furlough. Those schemes amounted to hundreds of billions of pounds. I do not diminish the challenges that businesses face, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the scale of support we have given. We are, of course, living in the long shadow of the pandemic and the fiscal challenges it has brought upon us all.
We really need to encourage businesses to play their part by investing in and developing the UK’s domestic labour force, rather than relying on immigration policy as an alternative, especially given the 5 million economically inactive people in our economy. That does not mean we should not think carefully about the sectors that face particular challenges. We are alive to those issues and want to adopt a pragmatic approach, but that approach has to be a two-way street. As Stephen Kinnock said, it involves businesses themselves working hard to recruit and retain domestic workers and thinking about improving their productivity, rather than immigration being the long-term solution for those sectors.
We must also be alive to the fact that some of the industry bodies and lobbyists who approach the Government, perfectly understandably to represent their members, occasionally overstate the value of migrant workers and their availability in the international labour market. The former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham, will remember some of those instances. I am thinking, for example, of HGV drivers: there was a concerted campaign—one that ostensibly seemed valid—to create a specific route to bring more HGV drivers into the country to meet the significant issues we had at one stage. We responded to that call and only a tiny number of foreign HGV drivers ultimately applied for the visa, met our requirements and came here.
The lobby groups that raised that issue, although they were perfectly at liberty to do so, were wrong. That was not the route to solve the problem. The long-term solution was to make the industry more attractive to domestic workers, to retain more HGV drivers and to help to put the sector on a more sustainable footing.
Could that failure to recruit enough HGV drivers from overseas have been anything to do with the fact that they were told they could come here for 12 weeks and would then have to go home again?
No, that was not the issue. Without going off on a tangent, the root cause of the issue was the aging population of HGV drivers. Many were coming up for retirement and the industry had had poor pay and working conditions for a long time. There was also a global shortage of HGV drivers, so it was not unique to the UK. We saw it all over Europe.
I thank the Minister for his interest in trying to solve these problems. In my contribution I spoke specifically about fishing and skills; will he give an assurance that he will meet me, and other Members who wish to join us, to discuss that topic? That would be helpful. I make that request in a constructive fashion—I mean that honestly—because I believe there is a way forward that we can all agree on.
In the time I have available, let me address some of the specific points raised. I am looking forward to meeting the hon. Member for Strangford and representatives from the fishing industry. He has made a number of good points today and I hope we can explore them in more detail when we meet.
Rachael Maskell made valid points, particularly on health and social care. As a former Health Minister, I hear what she said. The issues she raised are the reason why my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham created the health and social care visa, which has been very successful, and we now see tens of thousands of doctors and nurses coming to the UK. That is not the long-term answer—we want to train more people domestically, and I am alive to arguments made for lifting the cap on medical school places—but in the meantime it is important to bring in those who want to come here to work. That visa is also applicable for care workers, although I appreciate that there are some legitimate concerns about the salary threshold and so on that make it more challenging than we would like it to be.
In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale talked about the broader labour market challenges and how we respond to them—a valid point also made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham. We need to take that up across Government so that we have a far more joined-up approach to these challenges. One way in which we are trying to ensure that skills training more adequately meets the needs of particular communities in England, at least, is through devolution. We now routinely devolve the skills budget for adults to local authorities and Mayors. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has a new devolution deal in his area; if that progresses to a mayoral deal, I suspect he will see a devolution of skills budgets and training to Cumbria, which may be helpful to him.
A number of colleagues raised the question of youth mobility schemes, which I fully support and would like to see more of. Most recently, we have progressed that idea through the Australia and New Zealand free trade agreements, while negotiations are ongoing with other countries. We are open to more agreements, which clearly must be reciprocal. With respect to European countries, we are open to that debate. The EU is currently seeking an agreement across the whole European Union, rather than on a state-by-state basis; although that does not preclude us from entering into it, it clearly means a longer and more complex negotiation than if we were able to negotiate with individual states.
Several Members raised the question of asylum seekers having the right to work in the UK. I appreciate that there are good arguments on both sides of this debate, which I have considered at length. On balance, I do not agree with doing it because it would add a further pull factor to the UK. The UK already sees a very large number of individuals making the dangerous crossing across the channel. There are a number of reasons for that. The UK is viewed as a more attractive location to come to for work and access to public services because of the way in which we treat those individuals versus other European countries. I do not think it would be sensible for us to add a further pull factor to the many we already have. Deterrence has to be suffused through our approach to tackling illegal immigration. If we undermine that further, we will only find larger numbers of individuals crossing the channel.
With that, I draw my remarks to a close. I look forward to meeting the hon. Member for Strangford to discuss fishing. If the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale ever wishes to take up these matters with me, I would be happy to meet with him to discuss them further.
I am grateful to you for overseeing the debate, Mrs Cummins.
I thank the Minister for that offer. Let me cut to the chase: yes, we would love to have a meeting with the tourism leaders for the lakes and the rest of Cumbria Tourism to talk about all the practicalities.
The tone of the debate was good. It is a low bar, I am afraid, but at least there has not been any incendiary language about foreigners and asylum seekers flooding our shores and all the rest of that nonsense, although I did disagree with some of the things that others said.
Priti Patel made some good points about us training our own staff and ensuring that we develop young people’s talent. In my part of the world, Kendal College has certainly added massive value for young people so that they can set up a career in the Lake district. We should not see hospitality just as something that is menial and low paid; it is a real career trajectory that people can follow.
My more general concern about the Government’s position is that they have allowed political considerations to overwhelm economic and practical ones. If someone trying to run a business in the Lake district has a workforce problem, that is partly—maybe mostly—caused by the housing disaster, which the Government need to get a grip of, but it is in no small part also caused by inflexibility on migration. It needs to be something that is reciprocal, whereby we give people a reasonable length of time here so that they can contribute. That is what businesses want; I hope the Minister will listen to them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the matter of a temporary recovery visa for industries experiencing labour and skills shortages.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.