Many businesses who have fought tooth and nail throughout lockdown to stay afloat have reached a point where restrictions have ended, only now to be completely sunk by staff shortages.
Here in the Lake District, where hospitality and tourism is by far and away our biggest employer, we’ve seen the devastating effects of this up close with countless bars, restaurants and pubs forced to close because they simply can’t find enough staff to operate.
A whopping 68 per cent of local businesses surveyed by Cumbria Tourism last month say that recruitment is now a significant problem for them – that figure has doubled since May!
So what’s behind this crisis?
Well, the widely reported chaos caused by the Track and Trace app has obviously become a significant issue over the past week or so, but there is something even more problematic at play here.
At a time when businesses are looking to get back on their feet after an unbelievably brutal 16 months, this Government has decided to introduce new immigration rules which mean that it has become impossible to recruit the workforce businesses once could from the European Union.
Now on the surface, this seems like a positive fulfilment of the popular Brexit adage – more jobs for British workers.
The reality is very different though. Employers are advertising roles, but plenty are receiving zero applications. The Home Office’s advice is that “employers should now focus on offering attractive packages to the domestic workforce”.
Well, Cumbria Tourism’s latest employer survey found that 92 per cent of employers have increased salaries, 53 per cent have improved shift patterns, 31 per cent have offered accommodation, and 42 per cent have offered other benefits to try and entice staff. These changes are still not giving the necessary boost to the number of applicants.
In the Lake District 80 per cent of the entire working age population already work in hospitality and tourism. There is no huge, sufficient local reservoir of workers to fill the gaps.
This was an entirely predictable situation. For the past two years I feel like I’ve been banging my head against a brick wall, trying to tell Ministers that if they go ahead with these barmy, impractical, stupid visa rules, then it will be utterly destructive to thousands upon thousands of British businesses.
The most ironic and tragic consequence of this all is that it is British workers who will suffer the most because of these immigration changes. The simple fact is that, if an Italian restaurant or a gastropub in the Lake District sources half its staff from overseas and half from the local area, if it cannot get the half from overseas and the business therefore closes, as dozens have done, the half who are local will lose their jobs too.
It is totally incomprehensible that the Government has spent millions and millions of pounds to help businesses survive during the Covid pandemic, only to then torpedo them with these absolutely bonkers immigration rules.
So what’s the answer?
Well, a quick and sensible solution that I and also many Conservative backbenchers are pushing for is for the Government’s Youth Mobility Scheme visa to be extended to countries in Europe. The scheme, which allows young people aged between 18 and 30 to come and work in Britain, is currently just available to people living in Australia, Canada, Monaco, New Zealand and San Marino. Why wouldn’t we want to give that same opportunity to young people in neighbouring countries who could help save so many local businesses from going under?
Sadly the Government seem determined to ignore local businesses and pig-headedly plough on with these policies, under the illusion that the public’s number one concern at the moment is immigration.
But in reality what people want to see is local businesses survive and flourish, and in hospitality and tourism it’s clear that in order to do that we need immigration.
The Government therefore has a clear choice ahead of it. It can either stick with its ill-thought out visa rules and let many more businesses go to the wall, with thousands of local British workers losing their jobs as a result. Or it can start living in the real world, immediately change tack and save Britain’s economy from being crippled by its own stupid policies.
Tim Farron is Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and a former party leader.
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