Politicians need to be more ‘practical’ about immigration and support employers to attract foreign workers to solve worker shortages, according to business body the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
Speaking at its annual conference in Birmingham today, CBI boss Tony Danker will say the current immigration system is one of four political barriers to growth in the UK economy.
“Let’s be honest with people,” he will say. “Our labour shortages are vast. First, we have lost hundreds of thousands of people to economic inactivity post Covid. And anyone who thinks they’ll all be back any day now – with the NHS under the pressure it is – is kidding themselves.
“Secondly, we don’t have enough Brits to go round for the vacancies that exist, and there’s a skills mismatch in any case. And third, believing automation can step in to do the job in most cases is unrealistic.”
The CBI will argue for “economic migration in areas where we aren’t going to get the people and skills at home any time soon”, issuing fixed-term visas in areas of skills shortage.
However, in his keynote speech to the conference, prime minister Rishi Sunak ruled out future agreements that would mean more alignment with EU laws.
Reports emerged at the weekend that Sunak was considering a Swiss-style deal with the EU, which would mean more freedom of movement as Switzerland is part of the Schengen area.
He said: “Let me be unequivocal about this: under my leadership, the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws.”
He reiterated the government’s commitment to a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, abolishing the idea that education ends at the age of 18.
The CBI has urged the government to “double down” on incentives for technology and automation, with a skills policy that works to fill roles in these industries.
To bring these factors together, Danker will suggest the shortage occupation list is not just the remit of the Home Office but should also be influenced by the Secretary of State for Education. He will also urge businesses to “take on the mantle” alongside the government in their training investments.
Alongside immigration reform, the CBI will today call for changes to the regulatory regime so it is more proportionate, better planning systems for infrastructure and major projects, and more fruitful trade partnerships with other countries.
Last week’s autumn statement was criticised for lack of detail around skills reform, with HR body the CIPD calling for a “stronger focus” on vocational education and training.
The Institute of Directors, meanwhile, called for the creation of an independent Shortage Occupations Agency to advise on immigration needs and skills.
Responding to the prime minister’s speech, Danker said: “The prime minister started to lay out a vision for a new approach.
“But what we didn’t get today are the details of the measures to achieve it. Businesses are making investment decisions now and need to hear more on this agenda as soon as possible.”
Last month, a survey by the CBI, found that almost three-quarters of UK companies had suffered from labour shortages in the past year and nearly half surveyed wanted the government to grant temporary visas for obvious shortage roles.
The body has also called for the Chancellor to reform the apprenticeship levy into a more flexible, “skills challenge” fund.