Brexit: SNP's attempt to blame NHS crisis and labour shortages on UK's departure from EU is laughable – Murdo Fraser MSP

You cannot walk down a Scottish high street at present without seeing signs in windows saying “Staff wanted”.

Care staff are leaving to work elsewhere because of low pay, a problem the SNP has the power to resolve, says Murdo Fraser (Picture: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP via Getty Images)

Whether in retail, hospitality, or food production, we have a real issue with labour shortages.

According to the Office for National Statistics, job vacancies across the UK in September reached a record high of just under 1.2 million. For those opposed to Brexit, the explanation is a simple one – it is all down to the end of free movement of labour.

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Those industries such as hospitality which depended heavily on young migrant workers from elsewhere in the EU are suffering because they no longer have access to that pool of workers.

But that explanation, politically convenient as it may be for those opposed to Brexit, is overly simplistic. Just last week I was speaking to some business leaders from the US who were visiting Scotland, and discussed the state of the economy across the Atlantic.

The biggest issue there, they said, was labour shortages. This is a problem affecting the whole developed world, and not just the UK.

What exactly is going on in the UK labour market is proving a mystery to many economists. Last year all the predictions were that the recovery from Covid, and in particular the end of the furlough scheme, would see a surge in unemployment. The opposition in Westminster were arguing over the summer that furlough should be extended, because of fears that unemployment would surge when it was stopped.

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There is little evidence of that happening so far, with unemployment currently sitting around the 1.5 million mark, although most forecasters suggest it might tick up a little higher.

On this simplistic analysis, some might look at the 1.2 million job vacancies measured against the 1.5 million unemployed, and wonder why there should be a problem. But the reality is somewhat more complex than that.

There are around six million EU citizens who have been granted settled status, able to work in the UK without restriction. The great majority of these are of working age. Of that total, the Office for National Statistics estimates that only some 3.5 million are currently living in the UK.

That means there are some 2.5 million eligible to work here but not currently resident, perhaps because in many cases they were furloughed, or lost employment due to Covid, and returned to their native countries.

Taken together with the unemployed, that gives a pool of four million people set against vacancies of 1.2 million, which one would expect would be more than sufficient to meet demand. However, those available for work might not have the skill base that is required for the vacancies on offer, or perhaps the terms and conditions available are simply not attractive to them.

So what needs to be done to address the issue? Firstly, there will be a need for certain sectors to continue to access labour from Europe or elsewhere in the world. A good example of this is in agriculture, where the seasonal agricultural worker scheme provides 30,000 places for temporary migrants to fulfil specific roles such as fruit and vegetable picking, where farmers complain that they simply cannot find domestic workers to do those jobs. Schemes like this will need to continue, and may well have a part to play in other areas of the economy.

Secondly, there needs to be a sustained focus on retraining of those who have lost jobs due to Covid which are not likely to return, but who could find fulfilling, secure employment in different roles.

To give just one example, we have seen job losses in the aviation sector, and it is unlikely that that will return to its previous strength for a number of years at least. Could those who worked there retrain as HGV or delivery drivers, where there is clear demand?

Thirdly, we need to address issues of low pay in sectors such as care and hospitality. The Chancellor’s announcement that the National Living Wage will increase to £9.50 per hour from April is a most welcome measure, but if careers in traditionally low-paid sectors are to be made more attractive then we all have to accept that we are going to have to pay more for services. The safety valve of importing cheap labour from other countries will be, in future, less available than it has been in the past.

None of this will stop those who are implacably opposed to Brexit from trying to blame all labour market issues on the ending of free movement. We have seen this recently from the Scottish government, with a shameless attempt to deflect criticism from the crisis sweeping the NHS with record waits at Accident and Emergency units, and people being advised not to call an ambulance unless their condition is life-threatening.

This is down, SNP ministers claim, to issues in the care sector, where due to staff shortages the elderly in hospital cannot be moved out to free up beds, because of a lack of availability of care packages. So the crisis in our NHS is not the fault of the SNP government for its mismanagement, but entirely down to Tory Brexit.

It is an exercise in blame-passing that is as cynical as it is laughable. Qualified and experienced staff are leaving jobs in care today to work in retail or elsewhere because of low pay for care assistants – an issue which is in the gift of the SNP to resolve.

Those with a more balanced view will recognise that these are complex issues, where we are still trying to fully understand the long-term impact of Covid and the effect that it will have on our economy. Blaming it all on Brexit may be politically convenient for some, but the reality is very different.

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