immigration – Labour’s new ‘progressive’ approach.

In a speech on immigration a year ago, I said that politicians didn’t talk enough about immigration. Twelve months on, everyone is talking (and sometimes shouting) about it. But in all the heat and the noise, it is sometimes hard to hear what’s really being said. That is why today I want to set out why Labour’s approach to immigration is a progressive one. Why it is different from a traditional conservative approach, and a free market liberal approach.

I want to explain how and why Labour’s policy has changed. But why we think the Government’s approach is failing too. And I want to set out five distinct features of a Labour, progressive approach – and why it would be better and fairer for Britain:

  1. First, an open honest debate that doesn’t promote hostility but doesn’t ignore concerns.
  2. Second, action to control the unfair impact of immigration – especially on low skilled jobs and wages – so the system is fair.
  3. Third, stronger controls – especially at Britain’s borders, so we can manage the level of immigration and stop abuse.
  4. Fourth, a smart system which distinguishes between types of immigration, so we bring benefits to our economy and tackle problems.
  5. And fifth, fair rules so those who come to Britain contribute to our economy and society.

A rich history of immigration

Immigration has been important for Britain over many centuries. Our nation and its institutions have been built on the ideas, ingenuity and sweat of people who travelled here from abroad. From the Huguenots in Spitalfields, to the Trinidadians on our hospital wards. From the Norman Conquest to the Kindertransport. From Easyjet to Marks & Spencer.

Men and women who built businesses, weaved cloth, dug coal, founded banks, drove trains and gave life to what Aneurin Bevan called ‘the most civilised thing in the world’ – the National Health Service. There can be no doubt this small island off the north-west coast off continental Europe could not have contributed so much to the world, from the English language to the Internet, without the contribution of immigrants.

The challenges of immigration

Yet each successive pattern of migration brings new challenges. The pace of change in local neighbourhoods can cause anxiety for settled communities, create pressure on local services, drive down wages in some jobs and lead to exploitation.

I’ve talked to people across the country from all kinds of backgrounds who are worried about immigration policy and each have a story to tell. People whose parents or grandparents came here from abroad. People whose sons or daughters are married to married to foreign citizens and living abroad. People whose families have lived in the same corner of Britain for many, many generations.

People who have lived abroad, business leaders, trade unionists, all raising different concerns and questions about the immigration system. All who believe the current system isn’t working. All keen to be part of a sensible conversation about how it should be reformed and what should change. Labour’s approach has changed.

As Ed Miliband has said, the last Labour government got things wrong on immigration We should have had transitional controls in place for Eastern Europe The figures were wrong, and migration was far greater than we expected. As a result the pace and scale of immigration – and particularly low skilled immigration – was too great and it is right to bring it down.

And we should have recognised more quickly the impact on low skilled jobs, and the worries people had. The Coalition approach is failing. But let’s be clear: this Government’s approach isn’t working either.

David Cameron promised “no ifs no buts” that net migration would be cut to the tens of thousands. But he is failing to meet that target. And net migration has gone up in the latest figures by 60,000 to 210,000. At the same time illegal immigration – which isn’t included in the target – is getting worse. More people are absconding at the border, fewer are being caught and sent home, and the number of people here illegally is growing. Yet fee paying international students at our Universities – who are in the target – have fallen for the first time for 20 years, cutting the investment they bring into Britain.

Exploitation of low skilled migrant labour by employers as a cheap option is getting worse. Yet top businesses are worried they can’t get the high skills they need The public are more concerned than ever – especially about the impact of EU migration It’s the worst of all worlds So what do we need to do?

The conservative approach doesn’t work

The reactionary conservative approach doesn’t work. It says all immigration is bad. It ramps up the rhetoric, raises false promises and expectations, undermines trust and confidence, and creates division and hostility. It does nothing at all about the impact of immigration, and the economic pressures that can drive migration. And it treats all immigration as the same – and as damaging. It pretends we can build a wall and hide behind it, scared to look out.

Even though countries who turn their backs completely on international talent and trade lose investment and jobs. The liberal approach doesn’t work either. But the free market liberal approach which views all migration as good and tries to open all the doors won’t work either. It sees immigration purely in terms of market economics: immigrants as a source of innovation, but also as cheap labour to keep wages and inflation low. It is classic laissez-faire, with little regard for the impact on people’s lives, and the unfair consequences. That’s bad for Britain too.

A progressive approach

So what is the alternative, progressive approach to immigration? Our guiding principles are about fairness – ensuring we have a system that is good for Britain and for people who live here. We oppose exploitation with every sinew. We believe in strengthening communities not dividing them. We believe in fair rules and responsibilities, that aren’t abused. And we think policies should be based on evidence and reality, not rhetoric.

We reject the divisive politics of the right that promotes hostility instead of building communities and consensus. We understand the benefits to Britain. We understand, too, the problems. We believe action is needed to tackle the unfair impact of immigration. We know there are different kinds of immigration: it’s not all bad, as conservatives would tell us. It’s not all good, as liberals would tell us. Over centuries Britain has benefited from the immense contribution of those who have come to our shores. And in the world economy, immigration is important for our future so we don’t turn away the best talent and investment Britain needs.

That’s why immigration needs to be properly controlled and managed. And why stronger controls are needed to tackle problems and build public confidence and consent. We need to manage migration so that communities are strengthened, not divided. We need to control immigration, and to control the impact of immigration so it is fair for all.

What does a progressive immigration policy look like? So let me take each of these areas in turn and set out the distinctive features of our progressive approach.

An honest conversation

First, we need an open, honest conversation about immigration. It must be conducted without shrillness, but also without complacency. We will never compete in an arms race of rhetoric. We will never conduct the debate in way that whips up tensions and hostility. Nor will we stay silent – as too often we did while in government. Nor will we ignore or dismiss legitimate voices of concern, and pretend we can wish problems away. There will be no ‘Go Home’ ad vans on our streets under a Labour government. We won’t draw on the language of the 1970s National Front as the Tories have done.

Tackling the impact of immigration

Second, we need to tackle the root causes of anxiety about immigration. We need to address people’s legitimate fears about wages, jobs, the impact on our neighbourhoods, and the pressures on our public services like schools and the NHS.

And Labour is the only major party prepared to deal with the exploitation that undercuts wages and responsible businesses. In my constituency I’ve heard from skilled workers frustrated that they can’t apply for local jobs, because a contractor has refused to advertise locally and brought in cheaper workers from abroad. And I’ve heard from Polish workers in Yorkshire too, who answered agency adverts in Poland promising well paid jobs in Britain – only to discover the jobs didn’t exist. They told me about the long hours they were now working for very low pay in poor factory conditions, being told not to come back tomorrow if they dared to complain.

Exploitation like this is wrong, bad for those who are exploited, bad for other local workers who end up being undercut, bad for responsible businesses, and bad for our economy and communities. We do not want to live in a society dependent on the exploitation of cheap migrant labour – it’s immoral, it increases low skilled immigration, increases unfairness and resentment. Already we have made clear that a Labour Government will take action to crack down on abuse that exploits migrant workers and undercuts local wages and jobs.

We will enforce the national minimum wage, and double the fines for bosses who break the law. We will crack down on agencies which just recruit a particular nationality. Jobs must be open to all qualified to do them. There should be no hiding place for those who breach the minimum wage, for slum landlords, dodgy gangmasters and people traffickers.

But we need to go further. Take the case of the young Eastern Europeans forced to work for days at a time on chicken farms in filthy conditions without a bed, shower or proper food. Paid only by the number of chickens they caught, they worked through the nights and were forced to sleep through the day on a mini bus as they were driven round the country.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority discovered it and described their treatment as “disgraceful.” But all that happened was the firm lost its gangmasters licence to supply workers to other agricultural businesses. No fine. No further penalty. No action against its boss. The firm can still operate in other sectors. The truth is that for too long serious exploitation in the labour market – a cause and effect of low-skilled immigration and illegal immigration – has gone unchecked.

We want clearer, stronger laws so businesses know where they stand and responsible employers know they won’t be undercut, but so that it is clear that employers who use pressure or force to exploit people and get round employment law are committing a crime.

So with the Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Ummuna, I am today launching a nationwide consultation with businesses, trade unions, communities and working people into the laws around exploitation and the undercutting of wages and jobs, and responsible businesses, so we can end this race to the bottom.

Stronger controls

Third, we want stronger controls. And yes, stronger controls are vital for a progressive approach. The British people must have confidence in an immigration system that is functioning efficiently and fairly. At the moment, people do not have such confidence. Yet without confidence, there can be no consent.

We need to manage migration because, as we saw after 2004, the overall level of immigration impacts on the economy and on communities. We need to know how many people are arriving and leaving and what the impact will be. And we need to make sure the rules are enforced and not abused. It is a serious problem that Britain still can’t count people in and count people out.

That the Home Office don’t know how many foreign citizens come into the country, how many of them leave when their visa runs out, and how many don’t. So they can’t take action to make sure visa conditions are enforced. So they don’t take action until someone has been overstaying for years – putting families into limbo and making it even harder when deportation finally takes place. Other countries have a much better grip. We need that too. We need proper border controls in place.

The next Labour government will introduce exit checks so that visas can be enforced and action can be swiftly taken to make sure people leave when their time runs out. And we will draw up a plan to bring in proper controls to count people in and out, and deal with the hundreds of thousands of people overstaying their visas in Britain.

And we need stronger controls at the ports where the most problems arise. Particularly Calais, where we’ve seen not just abuse but tragedy. Awful cases of young men camping by the roadside then leaping onto the wheel arches of passing lorries, only to be crushed and killed.

So yes, it is progressive to call for much stronger enforcement at Calais. And we will bring back finger printing for illegal migrants caught stowing away at Calais – something the Government has refused to do.

We will distinguish between different types of immigration

Fourth, we need to distinguish between different types of immigration. The Government treats all legal immigration in the same way – be it university students or low skilled migrant workers, refugees or family members – as something bad for Britain that should be reduced. Yet it ignores illegal immigration, because that isn’t included in the figures, and that’s been getting worse. A single net migration target isn’t working and isn’t in Britain’s interests.

We believe different kinds of immigration should be treated differently. For example:

  • We don’t want to see illegal immigration at all and we should be aiming to cut it as low as possible.
  • We want stronger controls on temporary student visitors for short courses because those visas are being abused.
  • And we will keep the cap on skilled workers.

But we want to see more fee paying university students. Higher education is one of Britain’s biggest exports worth over £10 billion a year. And business leaders from across the globe were educated at Britain’s universities. At a time when our economy has only just started to grow, and when growth is still unbalanced, we should be making the most of our investment from across the world, and attracting the best and brightest from across the globe to study here and build strong business links with Britain.

So it is deeply damaging to our economy that the number of fee paying overseas students has fallen at a time when the international market is growing. That is why university students should be removed immediately from the net migration target. And why we will consult on applying different targets and controls to different kinds of immigration so we can help our Universities compete in a growing global market. We want a managed system which is in Britain’s interests.

And because ours is a progressive approach, we believe that immigration and asylum should not be mixed up. We strongly oppose the Government’s approach of including refugees in their net migration target in the same way as immigrants coming to work. It means the Home Office has a terrible incentive to fight against every call for action to help desperate refugees, just as they did when we called for Britain to accept our fair share of vulnerable Syrian refugees escaping their blood soaked civil war. We believe it is right to offer safe haven to those escaping rape, torture, genocide or the midnight knock on the door from the secret police. That’s always been the British way.

Fair rules

And finally a progressive approach means we need fair rules and clear expectations of those who come here to contribute to Britain. Rights must be matched by responsibilities.

This is especially true when it comes to learning English. Our shared language reflects our own history of immigration: words and syntax from German, Latin, Greek, Norman French and beyond. The English language is not only the passport to a world of literature, films and drama; it is also the surest route to the world of work, business and trade. Everyone coming to live in Britain should speak English, or learn to speak English as a first step to integration.

No-one living here should be excluded from the mainstream of society and the world of work by being unable to speak English. With Labour, all public sector workers who work directly with the public will have to be able to speak English to a decent standard. Most people who come to Britain work hard and contribute to our economy and public finances.

But it isn’t fair if new arrivals from Europe can claim benefits straight away – just as we don’t expect Brits to be able to claim benefits when they arrive abroad seeking a job. That’s why we called for benefit reforms a year ago – and why we believe we should go further, pursuing reforms in Europe so that child tax credit and child benefit are no longer paid to families abroad.

Nor should those who break our laws believe they can stay here. Those who ask another country to welcome them into their home have obligations to be good citizens too. Currently EU citizens who are guilty of assault, burglary or robbery but aren’t imprisoned for more than a year are not deported. A Labour government would change those rules, so that if new arrivals commit crime they shouldn’t expect to be able to stay.

And respect works both ways. Those who come here legally, who contribute to our communities and work hard to give their families a better life should never be targets of abuse or disrespect. And when deportations are needed, they should be conducted according to proper standards of respect and humanity so we never tolerate the awful abuse seen by staff at Yarl’s Wood.

So a progressive approach means reforms to the way that immigration is controlled and managed to make the system fair.

  • An honest open conversation.
  • Tackling the impact on wages and communities.
  • Stronger controls to instill confidence.
  • Distinguishing between different types of immigration.
  • Fair rules so people contribute to Britain.

It shows that Labour has changed on immigration. We’ve listened and learned. The issue in our fast-changing world is not whether people are for or against immigration, but how it should be managed and controlled.

We must control immigration to ensure the impact is fair and the system has the consent from the British people. We must be tough with those who want to exploit immigrants. We must offer safety to our fair share of genuine refugees.

Most of all, we must make immigration works for all, as part of the unfolding story of this island nation.

Thank you.

Yvette Cooper

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