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Paul Vallely: Immigration lets the economy to function

11 November 2022

Brexit has created staff shortages across the UK, says Paul Vallely

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“STAFF wanted,” the sign said. We saw it even before we saw the name of the hotel — the first that we encountered as we arrived in the Lake District for our autumn break. It was not a one-off.

The Lakes are one of Britain’s most popular tourist destinations. But they are also home to a resident population of affluent middle-class folk who have retired from all over the UK on final-salary pensions. On one 20-minute drive with friends who live near Windermere, we passed no fewer than five Michelin-starred restaurants. They are open all year round, not just in the summer.

Today, however, they are encountering a problem of a different kind. Many pubs and restaurants here are currently open only three or four days a week, because they cannot get the staff. The pub in our village is closed until April. In those that are open, staff are run off their feet, because there are not enough of them to manage the demands of the customers crowding into those places that are open all week round.

Once, these places were staffed plentifully by people from Eastern Europe, but Brexit has sent them all packing. Hospitality is not the only sector of the economy which is suffering as a result. There is a labour shortage in farming, construction, care homes, and the NHS — in jobs that native Brits are clearly reluctant to take up.

This is the other end of the telescope of the “invasion” of migrants on small boats which the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, addresses here. The moral imperatives for a more humane approach to immigration are clear. But there are economic arguments, too. The fact is that immigration is essential to the current functioning of the British economy.

Our current Government is caught in a cleft stick on this. Anti-immigration sentiment was a huge driver of Brexit, and continues to animate many Conservative supporters — even though 18 other European countries accept more migrants per capita than Britain does. Recent polling by the political scientist Matthew Goodwin shows that Tory activists overwhelmingly support the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, when she talks of turning back boats in the Channel, sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda, and quitting the European Court of Human Rights.

Yet, even an ideologue such as Liz Truss was eventually forced into the realisation that Conservatives’ atavistic anti-immigration instincts are at odds with their avowed aim of growing the economy and increasing productivity.

It is time for Rishi Sunak to send out a clear alternative message to counter the rebarbative dog-whistle politics of Tories such as Mrs Braverman. Instead, as one of the original Brexiteers, he should remind his party that, at the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU, the Leave campaign spoke of the need to “take back control”.

Sadly, today, this slogan has become a catch-all for a xenophobic policy of “Keep all foreigners out.” But control, properly understood, ought to be about regulating the flow and type of immigrants — to allow in those who will benefit the UK economy. If Mr Sunak’s “compassionate Conservatism” is to be anything more than empty political rhetoric, the Government needs both a more caring and a more coherent approach to immigration.

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