Employers “have not even bothered to look” at British workers for vacancies currently filled by EU workers, Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith has said.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, the former work and pensions secretary blamed employers for not hiring British workers and dismissed business chiefs’ call for immigration targets to be scrapped after Brexit.
Instead, he said a system of work permits should be extended to all foreign workers wanting to come to the UK.
“A lot of employers simply have not even bothered to try and find UK people to work,” he said.
“I think the best thing to do is work with what we have got and make it work for everyone around the world,” he said. “You basically extend the work permit process across the EU and the rest of the world.
“People can come here for work but they need to have work to come to and that work needs to have been agreed and accepted that there isn’t a person in the UK that could do that work and has the skills to do that work.”
Mr Duncan Smith, the founder of the troubled universal credit benefits scheme currently being rolled out, went on to claim the current welfare system was distorting the employment market.
He said: “What’s happened is access to benefits, including child benefits even if you don’t have your children with you, has distorted the whole system around them being able to offer much cheaper wages and have them completely topped up.
“In the last year figures were available, and this is important, more than £4.1 billion was spent on people from the EU who have come over here getting tax credits, child benefits, housing benefits. That’s one of the great pull factors.
“Leaving the EU, we should not be offering for people to come over here just looking for work and to claim benefits.
“We need a living wage that does not require people to come over here and claim benefits to top up.”
CBI deputy director-general Josh Hardie suggested Mr Duncan Smith’s assessment was “wholly detached from reality”.
“The suggestion that British businesses do not even bother to look at British workers to fill roles is wholly detached from reality and needlessly provocative to the thousands of firms across the UK facing labour and skills shortages,” he said.
“Businesses are trying to have a balanced, honest debate about a new immigration system for the UK.
“We need to build this model from facts, not fantasy.”
But the CBI, representing business leaders across the UK, has called for politicians to recognise the value of immigration to the UK economy, which they said should include scrapping immigration targets after Brexit.
Businesses need a new immigration policy, avoiding visas for EU citizens and putting migration on the table for trade talks, according to the CBI’s new report Open And Controlled – A New Approach To Migration.
Evidence from 129,000 firms across 18 industry sectors in the report showed the importance of migration at all skill levels, said CBI deputy director-general Josh Hardie.
He called for “blunt targets” to be axed to enable companies to hire the staff they need.
“This is no longer a theoretical debate,” he said. “It’s about the future of our nation. Openness and control must not be presented as opposites.
“Scrapping blunt targets, ensuring all who come to the UK contribute and using the immigration dividend to support public services will add to public confidence.
“Many sectors are already facing shortages, from nurses to software engineers – so fast, sustainable, evidence-based action is needed.”
The report highlights how businesses do not just need “the brightest and best” immigrants, but different skill levels across many different sectors.
Mr Hardie outlined the contribution made by EU immigrants to building Britain’s houses – from labourers and electricians to architects – and in food and drink, starting with farm workers, through logistics and into hospitality.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” he said. “Get it wrong, and the UK risks having too few people to run the NHS, pick fruit or deliver products to stores around the country.
“This would hurt us all – from the money in our pockets to our access to public services.
“The needs are more complex than only ensuring that the UK can attract the ‘brightest and best’.”
He also called for greater migration to be part of future trade negotiations to allow the UK economy to grow, as well as reform of the non-EU immigration system of visas.
“For Global Britain to succeed, the UK must send the right signals that show it remains open and welcoming to the world,” he said.
“That means putting migration on the table in trade talks to get us a better deal, first with the EU and then other countries, where it is clear existing visa restrictions inhibit trade and foreign direct investment.”
Black Country MP John Spellar, an occasional Labour Brexiteer rebel, criticised the CBI for “sticking plaster” remedies for a failure to train British workers.
“Bleating Bosses should do more training of youngsters and workers in the UK rather than relying on bringing in workers from the EU,” he said.
“As an example they cite nurses, yet the Tory Government and useless NHS Bureaucrats cut training numbers, denying thousands of hopeful youngsters of the chance of a fulfilling career.
“Recruiting from abroad has been a sticking plaster over their failure in this and many other sectors, and it’s time to call a halt.”
Businesses need to win public support for an open immigration policy, said immigration think tank British Future’s director Sunder Katwala, calling for “bigger changes”.
“Our post-Brexit immigration system will need to win public support and restore confidence in how we manage immigration,” he said.
“People do see the gains for the economy of skilled and student migration – but people are worried about the scale of migration in lower-skilled work.
“The public sees the referendum as a reset moment – so they are expecting bigger changes than the CBI is proposing.”