Simon Wolfson, the chief executive of the clothing and homeware retailer Next, has urged the government to make it easier to allow foreign workers into the UK and said this is “not the Brexit I wanted”.
The Conservative peer and Brexit supporter said the government was blocking much-needed workers from entering the UK, even though firms were desperate for labour.
“We have got people queueing up to come to this country to pick crops that are rotting in fields, to work in warehouses that otherwise wouldn’t be operable, and we’re not letting them in,” Lord Wolfson said in an interview with the BBC.
“In respect of immigration, it’s definitely not the Brexit that I wanted, or indeed, many of people who voted Brexit wanted,” he added.
Wolfson said it was still worth incentivising businesses to hire local workers in the UK, and said this could be achieved by making sure firms pay a 10% tax to the government on salaries of foreign hired labour.
“It would automatically mean that businesses never bought someone into the company from outside if they could find someone in the UK,” he said. “But if they genuinely can’t, they’ll pay the premium.
Businesses across the UK have been struggling to find staff, partly owing to Brexit restrictions that meant EU citizens no longer had the right to work in the UK. It has affected hospitals, pubs, restaurants and logistics firms, and last year the government was forced to offer temporary visas to lorry drivers and poultry workers to help fix the resulting supply chain crisis.
Wolfson said most people in the UK had a “very pragmatic view” of immigration, and he urged the government to take a “different approach to economically productive migration”.
“Yes, control it, where it’s damaging to society, but let people in who can contribute,” the Next chief executive said.
“We have to remember, you know, we’re all stuck in this Brexit argument. We have to remember that what post-Brexit Britain looks like is not the preserve of those people that voted Brexit, it’s for all of us to decide,” Wolfson said.
It came as the retail boss tried to calm fears over the length of the UK’s economic recession, which the Bank of England said last week could last until the middle of 2024.
“Next year will be tough but there is no need for a national nervous breakdown,” Wolfson said, arguing that the UK’s low unemployment rate – which fell to 3.5% in the three months to August – would help shield the UK from deeper economic turmoil. “While people will be squeezed, it’s very unlikely that they won’t be able to find work,” he said.
The country would probably start to bounce back by 2024, Wolfson added. “The interesting thing about a supply side recession is that the seeds of correction are automatically certain. So as demand drops and factories begin to empty, then prices begin to come down.”
In the meantime, Wolfson said, the government would need to focus its “very limited resources on the people that most need help during the upcoming recession”. He said the last thing that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, should do was to give financial support for households and businesses that did not need it.
That meant targeting aid at “the people who are going to be cold, and people who are going to be hungry, not businesses that want a break on their taxes,” he said.
The government has faced criticism for spending billions on capping energy bills for every UK household and business, meaning wealthier families and companies are receiving help when they may not need it.