Amber Rudd’s proposed curbs on foreign workers will only harm the UK economy

The Home Secretary’s speech at the Conservative Party conference cuts a very different tone to one she made mere weeks ago

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The Independent Online

It isn’t often that pub politics are practised in Britain, even at the Conservative Party conference. Or at least from the platform. Yet there was Home Secretary Amber Rudd, newly promoted and strident, echoing the standard saloon bar view that every job performed by a migrant could instead be taken by an unemployed Briton, presumably one either too lazy to take it because of the benefits system, or too undercut by migrants willing to do the work for less, or, possibly, both. Thus, Ms Rudd promises to introduce new tests to “ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do”. It wasn’t quite “British jobs for British workers”, Gordon Brown’s daft sound bite that was as undeliverable as it was offensive, but it was near enough.

Taxi drivers and students in particular will find themselves subject to stringent new checks, with the pledge, still unspecified, to reduce the overall level of migration, and all coupled to Jeremy Hunt’s drive to replace foreign doctors.

So what will the impact of all this be on the economy? Bad. In certain parts of the country the economy relies on immigration, both from the EU and the wider world. London would grind to a halt. If there really was going to be a squeeze on migrant minicab drivers, many a Londoner would find themselves stranded after a long day in the office or a night out. If they have to say in a hotel they will find the rates generally higher than they might otherwise be if foreign workers are deterred from taking jobs in the hospitality business, from servicing rooms and looking after security to cooking curries and cordon bleue banquets. Nurses, if not doctors, would be in shorter supply; so would workers in every field, from potato-picking to running airlines. I once met an Italian eye surgeon who, even under the single market regime, found himself tied up in bureaucracy to come and work in the Midlands. Not every migrant winds up washing cars at £5 a time, but we should be grateful for those too. The reason why the “points system” was such a bad idea is that it relies on the comfortable but wrong assumption that the only labour shortages in Britain are at the top end; and yet there are many jobs across the labour market that wouldn’t even exist if it were not for a supply for ready labour. 

In a nation with a low birth rate and an ageing population, immigration is an economic “good”, whatever the cultural and political issues surrounding it might be. Immigrants, it needs repeating, tend to be younger than the host population, they tend to be keen to work and even start their businesses, such as the Polski sklep or Bangladeshi restaurant, and they tend to be the most enterprising  at least in the case of economic migrants. They built America and Australia and, though some in the UK don’t like to admit it, Britain too. It is true that the current levels of migration are historically very high, but the same principle applies as it did to the Irish navvies, West Indian and Filipino nurses, Indian doctors and Ugandan and Kenyan Asian businesspeople who arrived in previous waves. They work, they settle, their children become British, and proud of it. That’s the fact of the matter.

Migration is so commonplace we take it for granted. The Premier League, for a start. The Bank of England, run by a Canadian. England’s football team, once run by a Swede. We have German engineers and managers who come to work at their parent companies’ subsidiaries in the UK, helping us make Mini, Rolls-Royce and Bentley world-beaters. We have the most cosmopolitan financial centre in the world.

Immigration is good, then, though it is unfashionable to make the argument. Some of us who voted to leave the EU wish that immigration would continue to drive the economy; the Bank of England puts the increase in British growth in the 2000s as a result of migration at 0.25 per cent of GDP a year, about £3bn a year and a substantial cumulative sum. It’s also fair to say that, in migration terms, there is no good reason to favour an Austrian over an Australian simply because one is in the EU and the other isn’t. So Brexit could, in principle, produce a more rational immigration policy, though this is not what seems now to be happening. 

Still, there are some Conservative MPs in the south of England willing to stand up for the single market and free movement of Labour. Not so long ago one of them wrote: “I passionately believe it is best for us all and our country if we remain a member of the EU – to take advantage of our special status within the union giving us access to the world’s largest trading bloc. Membership of the EU brings Hastings and Rye local employment opportunities and job security, and it is a vital foundation of the strong economy this Government has built that funds our public services, keeps us safe and enables vital infrastructure projects.” As I’m sure you can guess, that was Ms Rudd only a few weeks ago, before she was appointed to her new position. What a difference a job makes to one’s outlook.

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