Leader comment: Foreign workers policy shift shows disarray

Sir Michael Fallon,  Secretary of State for Defence, has been clarifying the "misunderstanding" around the governemnt's policy proposals for foreign workers. Picture Jon Savage
Sir Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence, has been clarifying the "misunderstanding" around the governemnt's policy proposals for foreign workers. Picture Jon Savage
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Why has it taken the UK government five days to “clarify” Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s prop­osals to oblige companies to list the foreign workers they employ? And why, after months of confusion and criticism, are foreign nationals still awaiting assurances on their residency status here?

Seldom has a government declaration aroused such instantaneous offence and invoked such an outcry. Far from uniting the country in the wake of the EU referendum vote, the Home Secretary’s remarks have brought widespread condemnation – from business organisations such as the CBI, senior academics and leading figures in the arts. The briefing paper suggesting business owners would be expected to compile lists of their employees based on their nationality has also sparked a backlash from figures within her own party, including former Prime Minister David Cameron’s policy chief Steve Hilton, who attacked it as “divisive, repugnant and insanely bureaucratic”.

A letter condemning the proposals has now been signed by prominent Scottish writers including Kathleen Jamie, Ali Smith, Neal Ascherson, makar Liz Lochhead and playwright David Greig, together with more than 100 academics including Baroness Helena Kennedy and Dr Duncan Morrow, chairman of the Scottish Government’s Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crime.

Now there is furious back-peddling by government ministers, but this has not taken the essence of the proposals off the table, still less clarified what specifically the government intends to do. Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said UK companies will not be told to list or name foreign workers they employ. Firms could be asked “simply to report their numbers”. Education Secretary Justine Greening said the policy was “about collecting the right evidence if we are going to be able to respond to skills shortages…” A government source said there had been a “misunderstanding” rather than a “U-turn” on companies employing foreign workers.

It cannot be forgotten that the Home Secretary’s conference speech was matched by the tone of Theresa May’s address in its divisiveness and depiction of workers from foreign countries in a very much “us and them” way.

The Defence Secretary said businesses already had to go through a “resident labour market test” for non-EU workers but the government wanted to examine “whether we can get a better picture of exactly what the dependence on foreign workers is in each particular sector”. It smacks of a massive ledger of names, constantly in need of updating and vulnerable to error and abuse.

And despite numerous pleas the government still seems intent on using the status of foreign nationals in the UK as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations – deeply objectionable to many.

The episode adds to a growing sense of disarray and confusion at the top of the government as to its policy in the approach to Brexit. After three months this disarray shows every sense of worsening.