The headline news is that he renewed his call, first made last year, for national government to lower its 30 grand a year new immigrant salary threshold, suggested it should come down £21,000 – the annual equivalent of the London Living Wage – and argued that City Hall should compile the list of occupations hit by skills shortages so that they can be addressed more fruitfully.
The broader story is that Sadiq Khan spent part of yesterday’s beautiful, sunny London evening assuring members of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry that he remains, as he promised to be in 2016, the friend of the capital’s business community, demonstrating in the process that his predecessor as London Mayor has no monopoly on Brexit-related optimism.
Of course, staunch Remainer Mayor Khan’s upbeat note is being struck in spite of Brexit happening – assuming it actually does – rather than because of it. But that is, in part, because of things Boris Johnson displayed conspicuous support for during his eight flamboyantly average years in doing the job Khan has now.
Johnson once proclaimed during a Mayor’s Question Time that he was rare and precious in being a UK politician prepared to speak up for immigration. He argued for easier access to the UK for foreign students, notably those from India and other Commonwealth countries for which he lobbied for a post-study work visa. He made serious proposals for an amnesty for long-term irregular migrants, an idea he has revived since becoming Prime Minister.
Now, Khan, having expressed relief to his audience that he was not alone in eschewing the finale of Love Island, spent much of his hour in the chamber of City Hall extolling immigration’s virtues. “The immigration debate is arguably the most important debate we’ll be having over the course of the next three months in relation to what happens with Brexit,” he said, adding that the issue would go on being crucial to the capital. Why? “Because I see on a daily basis the contribution made to our city economically, socially and culturally by immigration”.
An audience member raised recent remarks by Nicola Sturgeon favouring immigration law being devolved to Scotland and asked if Khan had aspirations of his own in that area for London. He replied by referring to post-referendum LCCI research into possible separate immigration arrangements for London – there was a lot of discussion on the theme back then – and highlighted new City Hall work showing how hard it could be for vital sectors of the capital’s economy to recruit the workers it needs under the government’s immigration plans as they stand. This follows LCCI survey findings that most London businesses are worried that skills shortages are set to increase.
“There are clever ways to tie immigration to employers,” Khan explained. “We think we should be in charge of deciding where there’s a shortage of skills in our city, rather than the clunky Whitehall system. If you devolve to London the shortage occupation list, we can decided as a city what should be on it.” The system could be tagged to particular work sectors too, rather than specific companies. For example: “Tech relies a lot on freelancers. I think there should be a freelance work permit.”
How much ice this cuts with the blond new regime upstream is yet to be seen, but if Johnson’s mayoral record ends up offering no more than false hope, it will still be a useful stick for Khan to beat him and all other Tories with as the 2020 mayoral election starts to appear on the horizon.
Devolution in a larger sense was also on last night’s agenda, providing another piece of common ground for the LCCI and the Mayor to share. It was Johnson who set up the London Finance Commission to recommend London government having more control over the use of the vast amount of taxes raised in the capital. Johnson, like Ken Livingstone before him, advocated standards for all London’s suburban rail services being set and enforced by Transport for London. It was under Johnson that City Hall obtained direct control over funding provided by the government to help build “affordable” homes. He was a very devo Mayor. Will he be a devo premier?
Khan said consistency demanded it: “If we’re leaving the EU, surely part of taking back control must be us being in charge of our destiny, rather than civil servants in Whitehall.” Movement in that direction has been extremely slow of late, but next month the adult education budget will at last be placed in London government hands. Khan and the LCCI would like to see the the same principle applied to the apprenticeship levy, much of which (like billions of pounds in taxes) is raised in London but not spent here, he said: “We think we export the levy. We think that’s wrong. We think it should be spent in London.”
The LCCI seems pleased with what it heard on immigration, both the spirit and the particulars. Interim chief executive Peter Bishop – newly in that role due to David Frost being recruited to the PM’s team – has expressed delight with the Mayor’s support for “a devolved immigration system to a London level” and observed that “migrants form the fabric of London’s businesses and communities and the capital is far more reliant upon foreign labour than any other region in the UK.”
Khan, as the Thames rolled by in the background, had remarked that, “All great cities have one thing in common, which is a river that runs to them and through them. Why is that? Because for hundreds of years that was the way trade, ideas and people came to them”. He also said: “Here’s an irony. London is the only region in England to vote to Remain. Of all the regions in the country, the one best placed to deal with Brexit, whatever type of Brexit, is London.” Nothing to quarrel with there either.
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