Left to right, Michael Josem, Katie Nicholson, Rob Callister, Chris Eaton, Caren Pegg, and Bill Shimmins

Left to right, Michael Josem, Katie Nicholson, Rob Callister, Chris Eaton, Caren Pegg, and Bill Shimmins

’Are we sleepwalking in to a demographic disaster?’

That was the question posed by Bill Shimmins MHK at a business debate in the island.

He proposed the motion that ’This house believes that due to the island’s rapidly ageing population and historically low rate of unemployment, all restrictions on immigration and employment should immediately be lifted.’

The question was raised at the ILS World Panel Debate, the latest event delivered by the IOM Business Network.

Around 90 people were at the Palace Hotel, Douglas, for the event and by a show of hands the majority backed Mr Shimmins’ proposal.

Middle MHK Mr Shimmins went on to outline that the island has one of the worst dependency ratios in Europe, with the 2016 census highlighting a marked decline in younger residents and yet an increase in older ones.

In comparison, Jersey, a key offshore competitor, is growing its younger and economically active population at a staggering rate.

It’s his belief that the current island demographic is unsustainable, with the best option being to grow the young demographic and secure sustainable growth by vastly improving the island’s infrastructure with immediate action.

Mr Shimmins was supported in his proposal by Caren Pegg, vice president of the IOM Chamber of Commerce and a partner in the dispute resolution department at Appleby.

Opposing the motion were Rob Callister, MHK for Onchan, and Michael Josem, an island-based international PR and marketing consultant.

All four had the opportunity to put forward their arguments before taking part in a question and answer session with delegates, summarising and then a vote from the room.

The lively debate provoked conversation around the island’s image and a renewed need to re-examine Government policies for childcare and education, return to work schemes and incentives to create a compelling proposition for economically active families to consider the Isle of Man as a viable option.

In support of Mr Shimmins’ pointed argument to relax what proposers consider to be an overly rigid system, Caren Pegg shared powerful statistics and voiced the consensus of Isle of Man Chamber of Commerce, a shared opinion garnered from a members-only consultation conducted in November 2016.

Chamber consultation on work permits reported that over 50% of participating members felt the work permit system prevented Isle of Man businesses from effective recruitment.

In addition:

30% felt the system actively forced businesses to consider alternatives such as expansion off island

75% of businesses experienced difficulty recruiting in the last 12 months due to a lack of applicants locally, and went as far as to say that we have a system which hinders economic growth.

Chamber’s feelings were later compounded by the 2016 census results which confirmed their suspicion that the economically active proportion of our population is declining.

Michael Josem, who referred to the proposer’s view as a ’free for all’, tabled the concept of a merit-based system and argued that a controlled and measured way forward would benefit the Isle of Man economically, environmentally and socially, ensuring service continuity and the high living standards residents are accustomed to for healthcare, education, infrastructure, transport and amenities.

Migrants would be selected based on merit or humanitarian grounds, with tight controls on who comes into the country and the circumstances under which they relocate, thereby ensuring we maintain an economy based on high skills, staff and productivity, and maintain social equilibrium and a fair welfare system.

Looking inward, Michael highlighted Isle of Man birth rate statistics and reinforced the point we need to revisit child benefit, increasing support for education and growing the population domestically.

Somewhat startling figures on women’s propensity to have children, a view based on increasing pressure of economic challenges and compounded by a 3% fall in the median wage, highlighted the difficulties faced by married and cohabiting couples and the impact this has on starting a family, and that our focus as an island should be on making the average Manx family richer rather than increasing the aggregate size.

China’s economy is greater in size, but the average Chinese family is far worse off by comparison.

Supporting Michael, Rob Callister MHK reminded the room of the intended light-hearted nature of the debate, and that our powers as an independent Government to force change were limited by law.

The Isle of Man’s immigration policies take the same form as the UK under Section 3 of the Immigration Act 1971, which guarantees that crown dependencies apply the same treatment to legal citizens of the EU. Of course, this changed on June 23, 2016 when the UK voted to leave the European Union.

The panel voiced four passionate, well-constructed points of view but it was up to the audience to vote for or against the motion.

Following an audience question and answer session the room voted with Mr Shimmins and Caren Pegg for the suspension of the current system in a bid to attract foreign nationals to the Isle of Man.

Chief executive, Chris Eaton said: ’ILS supports formal debates in the Isle of Man to provide a forum for discussion on the issues facing the island.

’As people who live and work here we know we need to increase our economically-active population to ensure there are enough people to fuel the development of our local businesses and our economy.

’Producing a strategy to retain and attract graduates, address the growing skills shortages, the decline in birth rates and catering for the growing numbers in retirement is very complex and these are not issues confined to the Isle of Man.

’The debate was informative and both sides made strong arguments.

’The questions and comments from the floor showed there were strong opinions on the motion and we must find some common ground between these two opposing opinions to urgently produce some innovative policy that will realistically address these problems .’

Katie Nicholson, chairman of the Isle of Man business network, said: ’This is the fifth ILS Debate that we’ve held now and, as ever, this topic proved to be both contentious yet engaging with our delegates.

’It really is one of the most important issues facing our island now and it was fantastic to see so many people openly discussing what’s best for our future economic growth and prosperity.

’It’ll be interesting to see if the debate sparks any future changes to our work permit system.’

The IOMBN is a not-for-profit organisation that provides its members with an opportunity to expand their network and partake in learning events such as the ILS Debate. Events in October include Fynoderee Gin Tasting session.

Source: IoMToday