Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Lord Lilley:

    Surely the reason concern is lower than before is that people believe that we have taken back control and that henceforth we will have proper controls on immigration. That is the only explanation.

    Baroness Bull:

    I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I would not presume to understand the general mindset of the British public without having asked them. I will move on, because time is limited.

    The White Paper confirms that a single route for all countries will be the case in the future. This may appear to be more equitable, in that it creates a level playing field, but in fact it is far from even. It gives access to only the skilled and the highly skilled, assessed via a salary threshold. The stated intention is to welcome only the brightest and best, but this fails to address two important issues: first, that the brightest and best are not always those earning the highest salaries; and, secondly, that the UK economy is dependent on at least 1.5 million low and medium-skilled workers who come to the UK via the free movement afforded by EU membership.

    A vast number of business sectors have come to rely on this supply stream, not least for vital but lower-paid roles in teaching, health and social care. Our requirements for this type of worker are only going to rise. In social care alone, it is estimated that we will need an extra 650,000 workers by 2035 to care for our ageing population—that will be us.

    With virtual full employment in the UK, where exactly will these essential workers come from? The White Paper proposes a time-limited transitional measure that will see employers rely on a rotating pool of low-paid workers who come in on 12-month visas. These workers will be responsible for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The risks of this—loss of know-how, discontinuity of service, constant recruitment and retraining, and dips in standards—were eloquently outlined by my noble friend Lady Masham of Ilton in this Chamber on 8 January. Might the Minister comment on what I see as a disconnect between the White Paper’s preference for high skills and the economy’s requirement for low and medium skills?

    I turn to the specific concerns of the creative and cultural sector, following on from the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper. Foremost among these is the proposed salary threshold of £30,000. In this sector, high-level skills are not commensurate with high levels of pay. As just one example, an assistant film commissioner—a grand title—earns £23,000. If this proposed threshold were agreed, employers would either be forced to do without the talent they require or would have to pay rates that were out of line with industry levels. We cannot look to the domestic workforce to fill these gaps; there are currently 22 creative industries roles on the shortage occupation list.

    This domestic skills gap is driven by three things: inadequate provision in schools, an underdeveloped education system for technical skills, and a lack of awareness about careers within the sector. Opening the doors to only established talent, as the White Paper proposes, will not help. A thriving domestic sector depends on talent pipelines that are built from the ground up and on welcoming potential, wherever it comes from, so that we can nurture the stars of the future. These are people for whom a salary of £30,000 is the stuff of dreams.

    Finally, I will touch on the question of freelance workers. Freelancers make up 15% of the overall workforce in the UK and 35% of the creative sector. They provide skills that are required on an occasional basis, and often at short notice. They offer vital flexibility, particularly for small businesses, and help to upskill domestic workers. The current non-EU immigration system offers few opportunities for international freelancers who want to work here on a long-term basis. The exceptional talent visa scheme is on too small a scale, and it does not allow access to workers who are skilled but not exceptional. Short-term visas do not help either; they are costly, slow and restrict the number of jobs a freelancer can undertake—which rather undermines the concept of being a freelancer. The Creative Industries Federation has proposed a freelance visa that would provide a new route and which would work across all sectors, not just the creative sector. Will the Minister consider meeting with sector representatives so that she can explore this proposal?

    As the noble Baroness pointed out, any changes to the immigration system that deny one of the UK’s most successful sectors access to the talent it needs to thrive would have serious consequences for our economy, jobs and innovation, and would risk the world-leading position we have established in arts, culture and creativity. This seems more important now than ever. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response, and hope she will give us comfort that this will not be the case.