by Richard Pooley
Let me upset any British reader who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union in order to reduce immigration (sorry...”to bring back control of our borders”). Here are some facts which were published last week by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (O.N.S.). Net migration in the twelve months to June 2022 was 504,000, an increase of 331,000 on the year before. That’s net. About 1,060,000 people came into the country in those twelve months and some 560,000 left (275,000 back to their native country in the EU). Who are these people?
277,000 are students and a few trailing spouses and children of those students. A year earlier there were half that number of people (143,000) coming to study at British universities.
276,000 are refugees. These include 89,000 Ukrainians, 76,000 from Hong Kong, and 21,000 Afghans.
Poor Sue-Ellen Braverman, the UK’s Home Secretary, a fervent Brexiteer and scourge of illegal migrants “invading” the country that her own mother and father came to, legally, in the 1960s (from Mauritius and Kenya respectively). She is tasked with reducing net migration to “tens of thousands” (see Conservative Party manifestos of 2010, 2015, 2017*). Yet neither she nor her six predecessors as Home Secretary since 2010 have managed to bring net annual migration down below 200,000, except for the plague year of 2020, when it could have been as low as 34,000.
I say “poor” Suella (apparently, she doesn’t like people knowing she is called after Sue-Ellen Ewing in the TV soap Dallas) because she has only been in the job for three months. Yet not only is she having to face the wrath of the right-wing media and Brexiteer Tory backbenchers for the failure of successive Conservative administrations to cut immigration, but she is also being undermined by her own Cabinet colleagues.
Specifically, by Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and one of his predecessors, the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. You see, both men surely know but won't openly admit that the UK economy cannot grow without filling the 1.2 million jobs currently vacant. And who are going to fill those vacancies? Migrants, of course. Who says so? The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility (O.B.R.), the body which Hunt’s immediate predecessor, Kwasi Kwarteng, ignored when he published his ill-fated ‘mini-budget’ (sorry, “Growth Plan”) in September. The OBR, in its comments on Hunt’s budget (sorry, “Autumn Statement”) of 17 November, said this:
“Only higher-than-expected immigration adds materially to prospects for potential growth over the coming five years.”
For some reason this opinion did not get much attention in the right-wing media. Perhaps they simply didn’t understand it. What did get them fuming however was the opinion of Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (C.B.I.), the trades union for big business. At the CBI’s recent annual conference he called for more migrants to be allowed in on fixed-term visas to do the jobs that British people are not skilled enough to do. He said:
“We don’t have enough Brits to go round.”
In fact, Danker is wrong. There are enough Brits to go round. But not enough of them are able or willing to do the jobs that need to be done if a host of British businesses are to survive, let alone thrive.
According to the ONS there are about nine million Brits between the ages of 16 and 64 who are neither working nor looking for work. The UK employment rate is still below pre-Covid levels, unlike nearly all other developed countries. It’s Brits not returning to work as much as Poles, Balts, Romanians etc returning to the EU after Brexit which is causing so many jobs to remain unfilled. There has been much talk in Britain about the negative effects on employment of ‘Long Covid’ and of sick people not getting the health treatment they need because of years-long waiting lists for operations. But much less noticed has been the decision by people between the ages of 50 and 64 to retire early from their jobs. 55% of the increase in ‘missing workers’ is due to this, according to the ONS. As Camilla Cavendish, journalist and former Director of Policy for Prime Minister David Cameron, recently put it in the Financial Times, these people are “retiring early not because they are too sick to work but because they are sick of working.” And perhaps because furlough payments during the pandemic and working from home afterwards have made some feel they could afford to retire and, Candide-like, cultivate their gardens. The latter are deluded. As inflation and mortgage rates soar, they will soon have to return to work. But will they have the skills, muscle or motivation to fill all those vacancies? Because so many of those legal migrants from outside the EU do (as, by the way, Suella, do many of the illegal ones heading across the Channel from northern France and Belgium).
Many argue that those job vacancies would be filled if Business and Government invested far more in training British people to fill them. That’s partially right. But it won’t happen overnight and costs a lot of money. It takes years to train people to be engineers, IT specialists, doctors, nurses and teachers. What’s more UK Business has a lousy record when it comes to investing in training. I know because I spent most of my working life in the training field. My British company ran short, highly practical courses for companies around the world. Never in my thirty plus years with the company did more than 5% of our turnover come from our domestic market. The Brits were not prepared to pay for quality. But the Germans, French, Swiss, Italians, Spanish, US Americans and Japanese were.
I wrote “partially right”. That’s because many of these vacancies don’t require people to have spent years acquiring specialist skills. They require people who are prepared to work hard and long. Fruit and vegetables are rotting in British fields because British people are not physically able or willing to do the tough work involved in harvesting them. Anybody who has been on their feet all day and much of the night cooking or serving customers in a restaurant or pub knows how hard the work is. Not enough Brits are prepared to do this kind of work anymore.
As I write this, our Ukrainian guest, Tatiana, is working from her bedroom at the top of our house. She and her then 15-year-old son, Daniil, arrived in June. In the past she taught English as a foreign language (TEFL) but spends most of her time now training people online (including Russians!) to become TEFL teachers. Last week she got a full-time job with a London-based company. This week she has two Brits among her students. Yes, that’s right, a recently arrived Ukrainian refugee is teaching two English people to teach English.
The ONS survey I mentioned at the start found that most Ukrainians who had arrived between March and June now had jobs. Most of the many professionals among them are doing “low-paid jobs in hospitality and the food sector as their English is not yet good enough or their qualifications are not yet valid.” So, they are filling those job vacancies that Brits won’t fill. They are not taking jobs from British people. They are not a burden on the State.
I met one of these Ukrainians the day the Queen died. He was working as a waiter in a pub in the Cotswolds. He had been a vet in the Ukraine and then set up a business there which was still being run by his partners. He had been allowed to leave Ukraine because his wife had given birth to their third child days before the Russians invaded (a Ukrainian man is allowed to leave with his wife if they have three or more children). I asked him why he was working in a pub: to improve his English and pay his way until he could get a better job. Maybe he would set up a subsidiary of his own company.
These Ukrainian refugees and those from Hong Kong and Afghanistan are going to benefit the UK enormously. The government, like others across Europe, did absolutely the right thing in making it easy for the Ukrainians and Hong Kongers to come and live here (shamefully, the Afghans, many of whom risked their lives working with the British army, were not so welcomed). Why can’t the government see how valuable other migrants would be?
Daniil went back to Kyiv a fortnight ago to live again with his father and return to school there. Why return to a city where he could be killed by a missile or freeze to death? One major reason is because the “outstanding” state school he was attending in the UK was asking him to study science and maths subjects which he had covered in his Ukrainian school two years earlier. The UK school did their best and he liked the encouragement of creativity which he experienced in his non-science lessons, something which he had not had at school in Ukraine. But he would have fallen far behind his classmates in Ukraine in the subjects that matter most to him and probably to any future employer. So, he went home.
Daniil’s story confirms what has been obvious to me for years as a parent, management trainer and businessman: the UK’s education system is outmoded and not providing the skills needed to do a host of jobs in 21st Century Britain. The ScaleUp Institute, a think tank and consultancy set up by Goldman Sachs, reported this year that the number of teachers of Information Technology in English schools fell by 17% to 12,719 between 2013 and 2021. Meanwhile at Oxford University more than twice as many undergraduates study Classics as Computer Science.
What do these people have in common: Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, James Gosling, Reed Hastings, and...er...Liam Neeson? The first four all studied Computer Science and went on to create, respectively, Google (Page and Brin), Facebook (Zuckerberg), and the Java programming language (Gosling). Hastings and Neeson also studied Computer Science. The former is the boss of Netflix; the latter is the famous actor (granted he didn’t finish his degree, preferring to work as a fork-lift driver for Guinness). Which would you prefer: more Boris Johnsons (2:1 Classics, Oxford) or more people with qualifications which are of use in the modern world?
There are enough Brits to go round but until enough of us have the skills and ability to work well and work hard we are going to need more migrants to fill the jobs we can’t or won’t do.
*The 2019 manifesto ditched this target and just said the Conservatives would introduce an Australian-style, points-based system. Suella however has kept the faith and pledged to bring net migration down to tens of thousands.