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When Priti Patel set out her points-based immigration system to MPs today, it felt very much like a work in progress, a provisional scheme to be tweaked later. The Home Secretary said “we will continue to refine” the new system and that today was “just the start of our phased approach”.
Boris Johnson promised an ‘oven ready’ Brexit, but many in business may believe Patel’s proposals were merely a half-baked, undercooked mess that gives microwave food a bad name. And despite having had more than three years to work up this system, the Tories have produced a plan that to many looks more rushed than right.
And once again, in a singularly un-Tory approach that the party’s MPs are getting used to, politics seems to trump economics and business needs come way down the list of government priorities. Yet the most significant immigration announcement that Patel has made since taking office does not concern the detail of her points-based system that she outlined last week and confirmed to the Commons today.
Rather, it is her and the PM’s decision - approved by the Cabinet last month - on the timing, not just the nature, of the scheme. Their huge joint judgement call has been to accelerate the timetable so that a brand-new system is in place by the end of this year, ditching May’s previous plan to introduce it by the start of 2023.
May had wanted to give business a longer period to make the transition away from cheap, ‘unskilled’ EU Labour. But Johnson, and Patel, believe that the political priority is to show to Brexit voters that the UK really is ‘taking back control’ of its borders sooner rather than later. For some Tory Brexiteers, the idea of a further two-year wait (after the transition period ends on December 31 2020) was just more dither and delay that the PM had promised to banish in the election campaign.
The need to get a new system out there, however provisional, was the imperative. The downside, as seen today, is that the points-based system is both unready and untested. For business, the main fear is that they simply won’t have enough time to prepare for the changes.
Patel today told bosses to invest in automation, to improve their productivity and to pay workers more. Yet many firms think they just don’t have the time to do all of that (if any of it were possible and still to stay afloat) with barely 10 months to the new era. It was Patel who sounded robotic, saying a dozen times during her Commons statement that she wanted “the brightest and the best” to come to the UK.
And although Patel won the strong backing of many Brexiteer grandees (Sir John Redwood, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson and David Davis), there were hints of nervousness from those with agricultural seats and farmers to keep happy. The home secretary tried to assuage farmers’ fears by agreeing to quadruple the numbers of migrants allowed under the season agricultural workers pilot, from 2,500 to 10,000.
Yet as the SNP’s Stewart Hosie pointed out, that figure it comes nowhere close to the 80,000-100,000 seasonal workers some (including the National Farmers Union) estimate are required across the UK. “How many thousands of tonnes of food and vegetables need to rot in the fields before she is dragged back here to apologise for this dog-whistle nonsense and to rip it up?” Hosie asked.
Patel simply shrugged off the question, repeating her mantra that business “in all sectors” had to “invest in technology to increase wages and to increase productivity”. But her real answer seemed to be that even a few thousand tonnes of wasted fruit and veg was a price worth paying to reassure Leave voters migration was being tackled.
Now, some farmers warned last year that the robot technology just isn’t ready yet to let them pick veg like beans. Last summer, a shortage of workers meant several farmers had to shut down early. A fruit farm fruit farm in Herefordshire said it had wasted 87,000 punnets of raspberries in just a fortnight because of a lack of staff, and that’s even before the points-based system was detailed.
And seasonal agricultural workers are in some ways the easy bit, some business leaders say. The tourism and hospitality trade - a lifeline in many coastal towns that voted Brexit - is a much bigger sector of the economy. As is the care sector which was created in the first place by cuts in funds to councils which meant town halls had to close state-run care homes across the land.
Perhaps the problem was neatly summed up by the words of this parliamentarian. “Think of the waitress who served you coffee today, the cleaners working late tonight, the care worker who will help your grandmother start the day tomorrow or the farm worker who has been out in the rain to put fresh vegetables on your table,” they said. “Do we value these people and the work they do? We should, but the message from the Home Office is it doesn’t.
“It envisages a post-Brexit immigration policy where so-called low-skilled people, who have fewer formal qualifications and are on lower incomes, will not be allowed into our country. Instead the Home Office types only want the ‘brightest and the best’, people like them who went to university and are on a big salary.”
That politician was not a Labour shadow minister. It was not some urban metrosexual. It was a former strawberry farmer, leading Brexiteer and Tory MP. His name is George Eustice and he made that savage attack on the Home Office plans (in the Evening Standard) last spring. Eustice is now the Environment Secretary. He had a Commons statement of his own today (on flooding) straight after Patel’s, so sadly he didn’t have the chance to repeat his remarks to his cabinet colleague to her face.
Quote Of The Day
“With climate change, we really are just toying with this.”
Craig Whittaker, Tory MP for Calder Valley, urges ministers to take strategic action on flood prevention
Monday Cheat Sheet
Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill sent a note to all Whitehall staff declaring that “candour, confidentiality and courtesy between Ministers, special advisers and civil servants are crucial to the trust and confidence on which good governance depends”. Many suspected that word ‘courtesy’ was a hint at the forceful conduct of Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings of late.
Yorkshire Tea has urged people to “be kind” after its staff had to field “furious accusations and boycott calls” when chancellor Rishi Sunak posted about the firm’s famous brew.
Downing Street said the UK is “well prepared” to deal with coronavirus cases and the risk to individuals “remains low”. Some 99% of those tested in the UK had proved negative.
The first ballots in the Labour party leadership and deputy leadership election were due to go out but were delayed. Members and supporters are being advised they may not get emails or postal ballots until Wednesday or even later. “Emails are being issued in batches due to the size of the electorate, and we expect it will take most of this week to send them all,” the party said.
What I’m Reading
How Stephen Miller Manipulates Trump On Immigration - New Yorker
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