High-profile Brexit backer Lord Simon Wolfson has renewed calls for the Government to let in more foreign workers to alleviate labour shortages that have plagued Scottish firms and the wider UK business community.

The Conservative life peer, who is chairman of retailing giant Next, said the UK's current immigration policy is crippling economic growth by blocking incoming workers at a time when firms are desperate for labour. A survey last month by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that nearly three-quarters of UK companies have suffered from staffing shortages during the past year.

“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.

He added: "I think in respect of immigration, it's definitely not the Brexit that I wanted, or indeed, many of people who voted Brexit wanted.

"And 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."

HeraldScotland: Lord Simon WolfsonLord Simon Wolfson (Image: PA Wire)

Despite voting in favour of Brexit, Lord Wolfson has been an outspoken critic of new immigration rules that followed the UK's exit from the European Union. He has maintained that the majority of people in the UK have a "very pragmatic view" of immigration, and is calling for what he described at "economically productive migration".

Brexit frictions have added to the mounting woes of Scottish companies facing spiralling cost increases and slumping consumer confidence. Food, tourism, hospitality and care firms have been among those hit the hardest by labour shortages, but most sectors are struggling to fill vacancies.

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC), said the tight labour market is one of several factors pushing up costs.

“Many retailers are hiring not only for shop and warehouse staff, but for digital and IT roles too – and they are not alone, with a ‘bidding war’ for talent across industries," he said. "Retailers are taking what steps they can to address these skills shortages, raising wages, improving employee benefits, and increasing in-house training, but with rising costs and falling consumer confidence, investment can be difficult to afford.

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"A more flexible, demand-led immigration system and reform of the Apprenticeship Levy – which would help retailers to increase their own training capacity – would help.”

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCC), said staff shortages remain among the top three concerns of its members alongside energy costs and inflationary pressures. Latest data from the SCC indicates that at least half of all businesses are facing labour market difficulties, rising to six out of 10 for those in the manufacturing and tourism industries.

“The impact of the pandemic and EU exit has laid bare the workforce and skills challenges facing Scottish businesses with shortages of staff emerging across multiple sectors," she said. "The Scottish and UK Government must work together to address these challenges and create an environment that allows businesses to attract talent and plug gaps in the workforce with ease."

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Lord Wolfson suggested that businesses needing foreign workers should pay a tax of 10 per cent on their salaries. This, he said, would ensure that only those which genuinely can't find UK workers would recruit from overseas.

“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."