EasyJet is cancelling flights because it can’t find the staff to crew its planes. Heathrow is in chaos because it doesn’t have enough people to handle the baggage. Restaurants are slimming back menus because there is no one to work the kitchens, and shops don’t have enough people to drive the vans and stock the shelves. Quite aside from the strikes, it is becoming painfully clear that the country is grinding to a halt because we don’t have enough people to do all the jobs that need to be done. Sure, it is easy to blame our departure from the EU. And yet, the dismal truth is that this is a crisis entirely of our own making. We have deliberately discouraged work – and until we fix that we won’t be able to get the economy functioning again.
Johan Lundgren, the chief executive of easyJet, pointed out this week that his airline had turned down 8,000 applicants from elsewhere in Europe because they didn’t have the right to work in the UK. It is a fair point, and it is reasonable for the boss of a big company to make it. And yet the interesting question is this. With five million people on out-of-work benefits, and with the over-50s opting for early retirement in record numbers, why does Lundgren need to rely on foreigners? Plenty of people across Europe think working on a bright orange A320 is a decent enough job. Why not the British? Because, as it turns out, we have done everything possible to make clocking in from nine to five as unattractive as possible.
This list of barriers to working is getting so long it is hard to keep up. Over the pandemic, we understandably lifted the sanctions for anyone on benefits who refused to work. But now that it is over, they have still not been properly restored. In effect, some people can stay at home drawing benefits and no one asks any difficult questions.
We are also increasing benefits, and especially pensions, in line with inflation but not wages, making work less attractive. We have just put up National Insurance, the most regressive tax ever created, directly punishing anyone who goes back to full-time employment. Health and safety rules may well be well-meant, but they have forced up the cost of childcare to some of the highest levels in the world, meaning one or other parent – and, if we are being honest, usually the mother – has to stay at home to look after the kids.
Meanwhile, in many very ordinary, but still satisfying, lines of work, we have introduced lots of pointless qualifications for tasks that used to be learned by watching your colleagues. No doubt the City & Guilds Professional Bartending qualification, with two separate sub-modules in cocktails and pouring, is useful enough in its own way. But it is just possible that after a couple of days most of us could put together a perfectly respectable mojito without it.
Even worse, the Government isn’t offering any incentives. We could offer the over-55s a lower rate of NI, for example, given that you already don’t pay it over the state pension age. That might encourage a few to think again about retirement. We could offer a lower rate of tax for anyone coming off benefits. And we could deregulate childcare so that the cost was less crushing, while cutting back the qualifications needed for any job to the bare minimum.
With 67 million people, the UK has plenty of people to fill all the jobs that need doing. But until we start making work more attractive it isn’t going to happen.