As usual, Twitter got the wrong end of the stick and therefore over-reacted to Amber Rudd’s proposal that businesses should report the number of foreign workers they employ. The misunderstanding that the Home Secretary proposed to make companies list such workers by name appears to have come from The Times‘ headline “Firms must list foreign workers”. Within half an hour people were wondering if the Government might insist on Nazi-style coloured badges for foreigners.
The idea of a list of names was, of course, not true; the Twitterstorm was the product of a sub searching for a compact headline rather than the sudden transformation of Rudd into a 1930s Gauleiter. What she was proposing, though, was that companies should be compelled to publish a tally of their foreign employees – along the lines of previous proposals to publish pay disparities between men and women, for example.
While that is not a Nazi-style outing of incomers, it’s still an awful idea. In fact, while Government policies tend to produce either disdain from my Conservative friends for not being good enough or loathing from my non-Conservative friends for being ‘evil’ in one way or another, this one seems to have managed to upset both groups at the same time – an impressive feat.
There are myriad problems with the idea. For a start, it’s another bit of meddling red tape which will add new costs for businesses. Worse, the adoption of a ‘name and shame’ approach rests on an unpleasant assumption that the public would wish to punish companies deemed to have too many foreign employees. That assumption is either incorrect, in which case the policy would have no effect at best, or accurate, in which case it plays to instincts which ought not to be indulged by the Government. Doing so would effectively mean penalising existing foreign workers in the UK for the sin of being foreign – effectively encouraging their employers to find ways to get rid of them. We should not want modern Britain to become a society which does such things.
The policy also fails to fulfil the Home Secretary’s own aims. If, as she told the Today Programme, she wants to “have a conversation” about “what skills we want to have in the UK and whether we need to go out of the UK in order to get them to boost our economy”, this policy singularly fails to measure up. A tally of foreign employees by company wouldn’t tell us anything useful about the presence or lack of skills in that firm or sector. Who would know from a raw number if the people involved were employed as labourers or specialist technicians, office cleaners or financial analysts? We can all agree with David Davis on the need to ensure that British citizens are both equipped and willing to work – issues with which the DWP has wrestled for some years - but Rudd’s attempt would be the equivalent of scrutinising the problem through the wrong end of a telescope.
Together, this has not been a comfortable experience for many Conservatives. By playing down to the worst stereotypes about both Brexit and Toryism, it laid the Government open to strong criticism and took a little of the sheen off the Prime Minister’s dual declaration that “I want us to be a country where it doesn’t matter where you were born” and that Labour are the new “nasty party”. In short, it felt like an own goal.
The Home Secretary is not stupid. She can surely see these problems with this poisonous and clunky idea. Nor does it fit with what we know about her views. She sits towards the left of the Conservative Party, her background is in the internationalist world of finance (including periods spent working abroad), her brother Roland is archdeacon of the ‘liberal elite’ pro-EU campaigners the Prime Minister condemned on Wednesday, and she was a vocal advocate of Remain during the referendum, notably savaging Boris Johnson live on television as he made a far more modest case for border control than she now makes herself. She has understandably been stung by accusations that her new policy is xenophobic, and swiftly rowed back when pressed on it. So where did it come from?
There seem to be two possibilities. It’s possible that she feels some pressure to appear tougher on immigration than she really is, and has thus overdone it. Finding herself in a difficult role – successor to May herself, and thus entrusted with keeping the Government’s numbers up on issues directly associated with the Prime Minister – and believing it necessary to demonstrate that she truly accepts the referendum result, she might have felt the need to put on a show to demonstrate the zeal of the convert. That’s possible, though it doesn’t sound very much like her.
The second option is that this has come down from Downing Street itself. This seems somewhat more possible. The last six years in the Home Office have left May with a reputation as a political survivor, but also with a lingering air of vulnerability around the topic of immigration control, given the failure to fulfil the “tens of thousands” manifesto pledge. She or her advisers might well have wanted to firstly demonstrate that the department with which she is so closely identified is progressing under new management and secondly to try to answer once and for all the concern in some quarters that she hadn’t done enough to reduce numbers.
One thing is for sure: whatever the original genesis of the policy, it is a bad idea which does no-one – in Downing Street, in the Home Office, in business or in the dole queue – any good. It should be dropped.