WE’RE about to enter party political conference season so get ready for the annual cacophony. Much will be said, some of it will be regretted afterwards, but I hope that politicians of all sides can agree on one thing.
The United Kingdom is about to undergo the most seismic change it has experienced since the Second World War. We need those who represent our interests in Westminster to pull together to help us survive the major adjustment of Brexit and emerge stronger – not weaker and even more divided.
Unless some kind of divine intervention occurs, we’re on course to leave the European Union in six months time. If the disorderly proceedings so far have taught us one thing, it is to be careful what you wish for.
The Prime Minister must keep this at the forefront of her mind as she negotiates with EU leaders this week. A new report from the Migration Advisory Committee is effectively calling for an end to so-called low-skilled immigration from the EU after Brexit.
In its place would come a ‘global’ system to replace the free movement of citizens between EU countries. After 2021, this would mean that EU nationals will be subject to the same rules as immigrants from non-European countries. Any worker who wanted to live in Britain for more than six months would require a visa.
While proper regulation of those who come to live in our country is important, the visa requirement has ramifications, not least financial, for would-be workers in less well-paid jobs, including construction, care work and agriculture. They might not be able to afford to come here at all, or be able to jump through the income-related hoops required.
At the same time, the Migration Advisory Committee recommends loosening some of the restrictions on more highly-skilled migrants such as doctors, IT workers and other professionals.
The Committee is entitled to its opinion. And I know that professional migrants are in high demand. My children have been taught over the years by outstanding teachers from Africa and Canada, for example, because maths and science teachers willing to work in challenging parts of South Yorkshire are thin on the ground. Prejudice works in many ways.
However, it is entirely missing the point. Here is the chance to create a new blueprint for Britain, but it will be without foundation if it’s not inclusive and well-formulated.
Where is the politician who can confidently outline a plan for the future which involves a fully-supported programme to encourage young people to take up the jobs which will go unfilled when these proposed new migration arrangements kick in? As far as I can see, there is a total lack of joined-up thinking on this crucial matter.
They should listen to those who know. Mike Cherry, the chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, says that his members now cite skills shortages as the second biggest barrier to future growth after operating costs.
He wants the Government to deliver on its promise of a National Insurance holiday for small firms which hire ex-forces personnel, the long-term unemployed and those with disabilities. And, of course, he wants modern apprenticeships to bring forth skilled and confident young people who can contribute fully to business.
Despite various measures over the years, I still don’t see enough commitment to recruiting school-leavers into practical trades and professions. Talk about prejudice. Here it is again.
The Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, is on a mission to prove that technical education, vocational skills and having a trade do mean something. “I don’t see an out of work brickie at the moment and the sparkies (electricians) are doing really well. It’s not grubby manual people, it’s like really valuable skills and yet there’s too much snobbery around it still,” she declared.
Clearly, if the supply of practical workers from the EU is about to be curtailed by Brexit, we need some pretty big ideas to ensure that the British economy is not to be put at risk by the shortfall.
And, conversely, logic suggests that if we lift the cap on highly-skilled workers, our own university students are going to find it tougher than ever to secure a top job in IT or a medical post in a hospital. We will be churning out graduates with nowhere to go; this in turn devalues the value of a degree.
At Labour’s conference in Liverpool next week, Ms Rayner is set to outline her plans for the future. I hope she gets chance to say her piece without being shouted down by the extremists in her own party.
Politicians of all sides now have no choice but to put Britain first. And this should come before everything, including personal ego, philosophical bias and the recommendations of a Migration Advisory Committee who have precious little idea of how the country really works.