westminster coronavirus lockdown

The Week in Westminster: The government faces criticism over immigration and flooding inaction

Your need-to-know guide to this week's UK political happenings

After last week’s big, brutal Cabinet reshuffle, we’re sure those in the Palace of Westminster were hoping for a bit of peace and quiet. But, thanks to a controversial new immigration policy, devastating floods in Wales and northern England and a political jibe from a high-profile BRIT award-winner, they’ve had no such luck. Here’s everything you need to know from the week in Westminster…

The ins and outs of new immigration

An overhaul of the UK’s immigration policy was one of the big promises made by Boris Johnson during the 2019 General Election and now the details of the new scheme have been made public courtesy of Home Secretary Priti Patel. The new scheme will resemble Australia’s points-based system in which scores are awarded for the type and salary of an applicant’s job, their English language skills and their education level. Non-English speakers and those working in jobs deemed ‘unskilled’ will be automatically rejected, as will those earning less than £25,600 – or £20,480 in the case of industries with a skills shortage – and the self-employed.

Upon its announcement, the theme drew immediate criticism from employers within the hospitality, agriculture, construction and care industries who rely on foreign labour for jobs such as waiting tables, care work and food processing, which all fall into the government’s unskilled category. There was also concerns raised by the NHS and health sector about the £25,600 wage threshold. Essential, skilled jobs, including radiography, occupational therapy and nursing, all start with entry level positions paid below this benchmark.

In response to the criticism, the government said it was time UK companies weaned themselves off cheap foreign labour and instead began investing in training British workers. Foreign workers currently make up just over 20% of the UK’s low-skilled construction workers while Pret A Manger has spoken before about how only one in fifty applications for its barista jobs come from UK citizens.

Criticism has also been levied at the proposed cost to applicants. The basic cost of £1,220 per person is among the highest in the world – and does not include upfront fees for use of the NHS or costs to sponsoring employees. The Institute for Government thinktank has calculated that it would cost a family of five, with a five-year work visa for one person, £21,299 before they could enter the country as costs sky rocket beyond individual work visas. This is in stark comparison to the fees charged by other developed nations – in Canada the same visa would cost just £670. As well as deterring families, it is feared the fees could also put off vital NHS staff and scientists who can find equally good job prospects in nations with lower visa fees.

The announcement comes amid reports that Patel has been clashing with senior civil servants within the Home Office and is accused of encouraging ‘behaviour outside the rule of law’. To achieve an immigration overhaul on this scale, and within the tight timeframe the government has set for itself, it is crucial that Patel be in complete harmony with her team – or risk critical errors being made.

Dennis causes devastation

The government, and Prime Minister in particular, also came under heavy fire this week for its response to major flooding in Wales and northern England after the UK was hit in quick succession by storms Ciara and Dennis. A month’s worth of rain fell over two days causing severe floods which are known to have resulted in six deaths. Despite this, the government refused to call an emergency Cobra meeting – a decision which local councillors say hampered recovery efforts due to a lack of funding. The Prime Minister has also made no effort to visit affected areas and was, instead, at a country retreat in Kent on Monday.

Johnson’s apparent inaction has drawn contrasts to the immediate action taken by Cameron’s government after the Christmas 2015 flooding – in which a Cobra meeting was called within 24 hours leading to the release of crucial emergency funding. A number of local MPs and councillors have spoken about their feelings of abandonment by the government, a lack of leadership and an absence of practical support leading to basic supplies, such as sandbags, having to be acquired by local authorities at a high cost. Victims of these most recent floods are being invited to apply for £500 financial hardship payments, council tax relief and up to £2,500 for uninsurable losses. Homes and businesses hit by flooding will also be able to apply for up £5,000 to help future proof against further events of this nature.

A high-profile race row

Gone, it seems, are the days when a politician could namedrop a hot new band – say, the Arctic Monkeys – to get relatability points. The musicians are beating them to it. Shortly before picking up his award for album of the year, London-born rapper Dave took to the stage at the BRITs to perform a freestyle track that, alongside criticising the media’s coverage of Meghan Markle and calling for support of the Windrush Generation, called Boris Johnson ‘a real racist’.

Priti Patel rebuked the performance, saying it was ‘absolute nonsense’. This sentiment was undermined by senior Labour MP Dawn Butler who commented that she is mistaken for black female colleagues at least once a week. Later in the week it was also revealed that BAME staff at the Houses of Parliament are asked to show security passes more often than white colleagues and, due to outdated traditions, are not allowed access to the same facilities as many of their white peers.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Josh Glancy reports on the highs and lows of the campaign trail

Join the Gentleman’s Journal Clubhouse here.

Further Reading