Will Hazel et al., The Telegraph, May 27, 2023
Labour would curb immigration by putting time limits on how long companies are able to import foreign workers in shortage occupations, the shadow home secretary has said.
Setting specific time limits would provide an incentive for companies to train more British staff, the party believes.
The development comes after official figures published last week revealed that annual net migration has hit a record high of 606,000.
In what will be seen as an audacious attempt to outflank the Tories on immigration, Labour is proposing a package of reforms to wean the UK off its dependence on foreign labour.
Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, also suggests that the NHS must begin reducing its reliance on foreign doctors as Britain faces increasing competition from other developed countries seeking to recruit overseas staff.
Speaking to the Telegraph, Ms Cooper attacked the Tories over their record on immigration, saying there had been a “huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality”.
“That undermines confidence in the whole system”, she said. “Immigration is really important for Britain, but it needs to be properly controlled and managed so that the system is fair.”
‘Reform and strengthening’
She said Labour’s plans would centre on the “reform and strengthening” of the MAC, which provides independent recommendations to the Home Office on migration.
“It only does very periodic reviews, and we want it to be able to look at not simply which occupations are on the shortage occupation list, but also what would be a sensible timescale,” Ms Cooper said. “How long should they be on the shortage occupation list for?”
Labour points out that some occupations such as nurses and civil engineers have been on the list for 15 years.
“At the moment, occupations stay on the shortage occupation list, and they rarely ever come off,” Ms Cooper said.
“There may be some occupations where you’re talking about really rare international skills where there may always need to be overseas recruitment, but there may be other areas where actually this is about a lack of training here in the UK and it shouldn’t be on the shortage occupation list.”
At the same time, Labour would link the MAC to its new planned skills body, Skills England, to make sure training plans are developed to fill shortages with homegrown workers.
Ms Cooper said the MAC would also be given extra resources and more freedom to determine its own work, rather than having to be commissioned by the Home Office. “It should be able to be much more responsive where it sees difficult issues arising in the labour market,” she said. Labour has already committed to scrapping the current rule which allows businesses to hire workers on the shortage occupation list at a 20 per cent discount on the going rate.
And Ms Cooper did not rule out raising the minimum salary threshold for companies wishing to hire skilled workers from abroad. “That’s something we think should always be a matter for advice from the MAC,” she said.
Mr Barclay has been pushing for a continued relaxation of controls on visas for health workers to plug gaps in the NHS, but his latest remarks suggest an acceptance that recent warnings by health trusts that Britain’s reliance on foreign medics has reached “unsustainable” levels.
NHS workforce strategy
His intervention comes ahead of the unveiling of the NHS workforce strategy next month, which will set out plans to dramatically increase the number of homegrown doctors to avoid a looming shortage of more than half a million workers.
The Telegraph understands that the strategy will propose a greater use of artificial intelligence, including “robot receptionists”, in order to free up staff time while calling for a doubling in nurse training places.
Recent figures show record numbers of overseas nurses are coming to the UK, making up almost half of new recruits.
Last week Rishi Sunak insisted that the Conservatives had not lost control of rising immigration numbers, amid concerns in the Cabinet about the likelihood of a major backlash over the issue at the next election.
Mr Barclay said that, “in the short term, there needs to be international recruitment because of the immediate challenges that we face” in the form of the Covid backlogs.
But he added: “There’s a recognition we need to train more domestically, not least because globally, it will become over time more competitive to attract workforce. When I was in Japan, with the G7 health leaders [it was clear] the other G7 countries were facing workforce pressures.”