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Farron: Migration has to be part of the solution to labour shortages

If we want to see economic growth then a good place to start is addressing labour shortages. I’m glad there seems to be – from media headlines at least –  some recognition by the prime minister that migration has to be part of the solution. These shortages are visible up and down our country,  in sectors from agricultural to hospitality, from construction to health and social care…the list goes on.

Rural economies in areas like my own constituency, which includes the Lake District, rely hugely on tourism and hospitality. But we continue to face the ongoing issue of skills, recruitment and retention. If you’ve visited the Lake District, it’s most likely that you saw reduced opening hours in cafes and restaurants because they just don’t have the staff.

In the years that I’ve been raising this issue with the Conservative government, I’m repeatedly told that the answer is with the education and training of our UK workforce. I agree that we need to first look to our local workforce, however employers in Cumbria have spent the last 12 months trying a range of things to attract workers; increasing wages, adding benefits, more training, better hours or acquiring accommodation for staff to live on site.

Cumbria Tourism has also been working closely with Department for Work and Pensions – supporting careers events and working with partners to engage directly with schools and colleges. Despite all of these initiatives, businesses in my constituency are struggling to survive or having to close. This has a huge impact on local people who then also lose their jobs.

It is critical that if we are to recruit from overseas, worker protection is central. Routes such as the seasonal worker scheme – where workers are tied to an employer and do not have the freedom to change employers – are open to worker exploitation. Recent reports about Indonesian workers on a UK farm at risk of debt bondage are very concerning.

The youth mobility visa is one option where workers are free to move between employers and sectors. I’ve raised the expansion of this route with immigration ministers but as yet we haven’t seen it expand sufficiently. This is why last week I wrote to the new home secretary Suella Braverman asking for a meeting to discuss youth mobility visas to address labour shortage in Cumbria.

In the meantime, we have over 85,000 people who have been waiting for more than 6 months for their asylum claim to be decided and are banned from working. They have every right to be in the UK whilst their asylum claim is considered but because the Home Office’s processing times are at a record high level, they are living in limbo for months, even years, being forced to rely on asylum support payments.

Some of these people will be ready to work and it makes no sense that the government would prefer them to rely on state support rather than keep their skills alive. Getting into employment at the earliest opportunity will put them in a much better position to integrate and flourish in the UK when they receive their refugee status. It’s important to remember that most of them will be permitted to stay – latest Home Office data shows that 76% of all asylum applications are allowed at initial decision.

I do hope we can have a more pragmatic approach to addressing our labour shortages in the UK. Rural communities like mine need government to work with them to address this now so that they can be free to make their businesses thrive.

Tim Farron has been the Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005, and served as the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party from 2015 to 2017. Tim is the host of ‘A Mucky Business’ podcast, and his new book A Mucky Business: Why Christians should get involved in politics is published in November.