As the challenge of Covid recedes, but does not disappear, the other burning issues of today come to the fore. There is much to debate, and much work still to do to get the country back on its feet. One issue, highlighted by the fuel crisis, has been the country’s position on migration. I backed Brexit to give us back control of our borders, but not to stop migration of those whose skills we need. The Government introduced a new points-based system intended to reduce overall levels of migration and give priority to those with the highest skills and the greatest talents such as scientists, engineers and academics. In my view that is too limited.
This should not be about high-skilled workers, but ‘highly-skilled’ workers, whose skills are crucial to our country. The Government has said they will not introduce a low-skilled or temporary work route, claiming we need to move away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Clearly, we need to maximise the employment opportunities of our own people, but we need to recognise that among our own people we don’t have all the skills we need. We need to enable those with the skills we lack to come here and work.
Our health and social care systems have always had a proud tradition of welcoming overseas staff to work, train and live in the UK. These people are not all necessarily working in the highest-level jobs, but they are highly skilled at what they do. The term low skilled is unhelpful and misleading. There are many very highly skilled and well-paid individuals in what we label low skilled jobs.
In recent weeks, the news about lorry driver shortages has been difficult to miss. While the issue has been exacerbated by the suspension of HGV driving tests, that is only part of the story. If you have ever watched an HGV driver you will know they are not low skilled! We need to recognise, celebrate, reward and provide good working conditions for all.
Lorry drivers from overseas are, understandably, not all prepared to come to the UK on short-term visas. This is what has been offered by the Government in a bid to ‘save Christmas’ and to bring in 5,000 temporary HGV drivers. We need to be offering sensible visas that allow them to plan their lives and guarantee that they will be able to work here for some time. Some from the haulage industry have also suggested that 5,000 drivers are nowhere near enough. There are similar issues to address in the care sector and the agricultural sector.
All of this is part of a scheme to control the number of economic migrants. But let us not forget the urgent need to welcome and support for asylum seekers. The Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme is helping 5,000 vulnerable Afghan citizens, and those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan in the first year and up to 20,000 over the coming years. Not only are those seeking asylum from Afghanistan fleeing genuinely horrific circumstances and in need of real help, but they have lots to offer the UK too.
We need to change our perception of asylum seekers as much as we do our perception of low-skilled workers. Once Afghan citizens have been resettled, many of them, like the Polish migrants after the War and the Asian communities expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, are highly skilled and educated and will make a significant contribution to our economy. I am confident that they will be able to integrate comfortably into this country, where we will welcome and support them with indefinite leave to enter or remain in the UK, and the eventual option to apply for British citizenship after 5 years in the UK.
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