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By Ben Guerin
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Government Accused Of Lacking "Courage" To Allow Migrants To Fill Workforce Gaps

Empty supermarket shelves (Alamy)

3 min read

A leading business figure has accused government of being too scared of public backlash to relax migration rules in order to plug workforce gaps, but believes they privately agree it would be the way to resolve the issue.

Tony Danker, director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said the government, as well as the Labour Party, lack the "courage" to make the case for letting workers from abroad come to the UK and take up jobs in sectors that continue to suffer from labour shortages.

According to Danker, who spoke to PoliticsHome following a keynote speech on Monday, ministers accept in private that temporarily relaxing migration rules would help them tackle labour shortages while the government works on its longer-term plans to get inactive Brits into work. However, he believes MPs are "daunted" by the prospect of defending the move in public.

"Politicians today, probably because they hear it from their focus groups, don't have the courage to confront people with this reality," Danker said. 

"They probably feel doing it in a nuanced way is impossible, which I think is wrong.

"When you think back to the HGV driver shortage, I recall the British public saying: 'This is ridiculous. This is stupid'," he explained. 

"We should be able to have an open and honest conversation with people and say: 'Look, we're clearly short in the labour market, we've had a massive hit to the labour market from the pandemic, and we are going to use immigration on a fixed-term, temporary basis to help us out.' People are absolutely used to this in the NHS and social care."

Danker added that while he did not believe the Home Office was solely to blame for the reluctance to relax migration rules for struggling sectors, the department led by Suella Braverman and Priti Patel before her often doesn't "think enough about economic opportunity".

The CBI wants Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take a "pragmatic" approach to economic migration, Danker said in his speech at University College London. Allowing foreign workers to come to the UK on a temporary basis "eases shortages and buys us the time to get our labour market balanced again", he argued.

"Britain doesn't need to go without fruit pickers, warehouse operatives and welders on a point of principle. It just needs what politicians to do in public what they all admit is needed in private," said Danker.

CBI boss Tony Danker
CBI boss Tony Danker

A host of sectors including construction, hospitality, agriculture and manufacturing continue to experience chronic staff shortages, after the Covid pandemic forced many foreign workers to leave the UK, and post-Brexit immigration rules then made it more difficult for them to return. 

The issue of labour shortages was particularly salient in late 2021, when gaps on supermarket shelves and a series of familiar brands reporting shortages of specific products dominated the headlines.

The government announced a series of short-term visa schemes for acutely affected professions like lorry drivers and poultry workers, but the problem continues to hinder industries across the board.

A big part of Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's economic agenda is getting inactive Brits into the workforce. They have asked Mel Stride, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to come up with ways of getting over 50s, carers and the long-term sick and disabled into work, and he is expected to publish a white paper setting out his plans in the coming weeks.

Danker said that while the government's focus on economic inactivity was welcome, its refusal to relax migration rules meant the UK was starting with "one arm tied behind our back".

"The government doesn't want to use immigration to fill vital shortages," he told PoliticsHome.

"I understand the politics, but it means that our policies on long term sickness, on benefits and incentives, and on childcare and training, all of these policies that are about boosting labour supply, are going to have to be twice as bold as other countries."

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