In the wake of this week’s by election results the focus on policy on immigration remains intense with all parties including Labour under pressure to address voter concerns on the issue. It’s right that we listen and address those concerns but we must do so with real action and not, as UKIP and others would do, just raise fears with easy rhetoric and simple and unworkable solutions.
First we need strong borders. While for the past four years government policy on immigration has been a history of missed opportunities and failure, Labour under Ed Milliband and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper have been making clear that it’s the first duty of government to get our border security right. This means putting in place effective exit and entry checks so we can track who is here and what happens to them, but it also means re-introducing finger printing and much tighter controls on the illegal immigrants we catch at the border and getting their early return, which under this government has halved.
In Tilbury recently we saw the harsh impact of people smuggling and its consequences; we need to up our game on catching people smugglers and make sure we work with the rest of Europe to stop this trade at its source.
Secondly there are real concerns over the impact of European migration. I’m clear, we should be proud of being in a wider european market that creates millions of jobs and improves prosperity, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want major change. UKIP’s rhetoric that says Britain is full and so we should simply shut the door to Europe would leave our economy in ruins, cause new delays, extra expense and difficulty for UK citizens wanting even the shortest of holiday trips to Europe. Worst of all, it leave us isolated and introverted even as the world faces ever more complex and evolving threats that require a united multinational response; Britain has always been a leader in the world and now is not the moment to step quietly away from an increasing number of global problems.
But we do need reform of our relationship with Europe, and we do need strong action to stop exploitation of UK and foreign workers. That means increased powers to local councils to enforce the minimum wage and treble fines to make sure that unscrupulous employers don’t get away with exploiting staff and forcing down wages so we can protect both UK workers and those who come here to work. It cannot be right that some employers recruit staff solely from abroad via agencies with local workers not being able to get into the jobs market at all; that has to stop and under Labour it would be illegal.
People in the UK expect fair treatment, so the situation of workers brought in to be housed in over-crowded accommodation, or in ‘beds in sheds’ so their employers can undercut local businesses is simply unacceptable and needs action from government. It also means that if people abuse our welcome and commit crimes there should be consequences for them as well as prison. And it means that people who come here to work should not get benefits till they have earned them and should not be sending out the country child benefit or tax credits payments for families that don’t live in the UK.
We also need reform for the future; the government should be assessing the impact of migration and jobs and public services, and making sure that any future entrant countries to the EU have controls in place on employment when they join.
So reform is a core principle of Labour’s approach to immigration. But in all the debate about immigration let’s not also forget it’s impact on the UK in other ways – that students who come here from abroad to learn in our world class universities bring in fees, spending power and leave with goodwill to the UK in their DNA.
Let’s not discourage the UK from being open to the world for jobs and investment by turning away the brightest and best from our shores; and let’s not forget the contribution those from abroad make to the NHS in keeping Britain healthy. We need a smarter system of controls and targets that recognises there are different kinds of immigration, and embrace that which helps us thrive, whilst working to prevent the negative consequences of that which doesn’t.
And finally, let’s understand that any system needs to recognise that people fall in love and that families want relatives to be with them when they live here.
Britain is and should be an open and tolerant society. The debate on immigration will be intense, but what is needed is a clear plan of action not simple and unworkable rhetoric.
David Hanson is Shadow Immigration Minister