It is all well and good imposing tougher restrictions on immigration, but what are we going to do if British people refuse to do the jobs we currently import migrants for?
James Cleverly this week announced a five-point immigration plan, declaring that “around 300,000 people who were eligible to come to the UK last year would not be able to in future – the largest reduction on record”.
The Home Secretary’s quintet of pledges includes plans to curb abuse of the Health and Care visa, increase skilled migrant salary thresholds from £26,200 to £38,700, reform the shortage occupations list, increase family income requirements and cut student dependents. It comes after legal migration hit 745,000 last year.
While it may well be the robust response that voters have been calling for, it does beg the question of who exactly is going to fill the void. We have around a million job vacancies as it is, but to rehash a slogan once deployed by the Tories against Labour: Britain isn’t working, or at least not as hard as it should do.
The impact of lockdown on work was devastating and has proved to have had longer-term consequences in the form of higher rates of economic inactivity and lower employment rates.
The effect of lockdown was immediate. The number of people in work fell by 825,000 between January-March 2020 and October-December 2020, while unemployment rose by almost 400,000, according to House of Commons Library research. The situation had improved by the start of 2021, with a partial recovery in employment and unemployment rates, but economic inactivity continued to surge, increasing to nearly 9 million at the start of 2022, nearly half a million more than at the beginning of 2020.
It was bad then, but the latest figures are even more alarming – particularly given they come so long after lockdown ended. Astonishingly, the employment rate has begun to fall again and is currently 75.7 per cent, while economic activity stands at 20.9 per cent of the working population.
All of this has had a predictable impact on the benefits bill. According to research by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think tank earlier this year, there are 1.2 million more people on working-age benefits today than if pre-pandemic trends had continued, including 260,000 more claimants with “no work requirements”.
And one of the causes is surging claims involving long-term sickness – with the number economically inactive for this reason now above 2.6 million, an increase of almost 500,000 since May. A massive 53 per cent of those inactive because of long-term sickness reported that they had depression, bad nerves, or anxiety.
What on earth is going on? Is this one of the inevitable costs of lockdown – the devastating impact on the mental health of the nation? Is it another example of the shocking failure of the NHS to treat the sick? Or is this, in fact, a sign of something even more fundamental: that Britain has lost its culture of hard work, and nobody is prepared to do anything about it?
There is a growing body of eVidence to suggest that the country has given up on work. A report by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) this week concluded that furlough has proved disastrous for our once proud working culture. The 18-month long Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme came to an end in September 2021 after a total of 11.7 million employee jobs were subsidised at a cost of £70 billion. But according to the BIS, the no-strings-attached payouts resulted in a shift in people’s approach to work. People’s preferences have changed to favour fewer hours.
“There has been this apparent change in the attitude towards work and the way we think about work and the labour market,” it said. Indeed, it would hardly be surprising if the state’s willingness to bail out people facing a hard time had broken the link between the idea of working hard and earning more. Why get up early, work longer hours – or even get out of bed at all – if other taxpayers will pay you to do next to nothing?
It’s a culture that’s even infected those who remain in employment. You see examples of the new cult of anti-work everywhere. Ideas that were once considered extreme – such as three-day weeks on full-time pay, permanent home-working, and universal basic incomes have entered the mainstream. Millennials and Gen-Z boast of having “lazygirl jobs” on social media. “Quiet quitting” – coasting along, doing the minimum possible – is not treated as shameful, but as perfectly respectable.
The problem is unsurprisingly perhaps greatest in the public sector. This week, we learned that civil servants at the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) are demanding to work a four-day week – for the same pay.
Employees who belong to the Public and Commercial Services union have signed a petition calling for a pilot scheme for more than 21,000 employees. It comes after civil servants were told to come into the office for more than 60 per cent of the time, after home working was introduced during Covid.
The union insists that a 20 per cent reduction in working hours with no loss of wages “could” improve wellbeing and productivity. Wellbeing, perhaps – but productivity? Not so much.
But it’s a problem in the private sector, too – worsened by our punitive tax system, and complex benefits system, which can disincentivise employees, be they on minimum wage or fiscally dragged in the 40 per cent higher rate band, from striving for a better job or a pay rise.
It’s been calculated that a single person on benefits has 34 per cent of their income to spend after non-avoidable costs, including housing. But if the same person starts part-time work on the minimum wage, after costs including tax and housing, they have only 32 per cent of their income to spend.
While I appreciate all the arguments around work being good for you in terms of mental health, self esteem and so on – if you’re in a menial job and the financial rewards are only marginal – why would you bother? Particularly if the shifts are unpredictable and you’ve little hope of career progression.
Skilled workers are also being saddled with the highest tax burden since the Second World War, combined with stagnant real average weekly pay growth since the 2008 global financial crisis – and the Government wonders why there is a generation of “quiet quitters”.
Hard work used to be part of our culture. Lots of older people today are still squeamish about taking out more than they paid in. But the truth is, the pandemic, combined with a catastrophe in the tax and welfare system, means that work is no longer seen as a blessing but a chore.