Keir Starmer has called on Boris Johnson to scrap the immigration surcharge for NHS health professionals and care workers, emphasising that “many of them are risking their lives for the sake of all of us”.
At Prime Minister’s Questions today, the Labour leader highlighted that the current charge is £400 per year, and will rise to £624 from October – a sum that he said would require working 70 hours on the national living wage to pay off.
Starmer told the House that Labour would table an amendment to the immigration bill, currently going through parliament and having just passed the second reading stage, to abolish the charge.
He asked Johnson: “Does the Prime Minister think it’s right that care workers coming from abroad and working on our frontline should have to pay a surcharge of hundreds – sometimes thousands of pounds – to use the NHS themselves?”
Commenting on the amendment to the immigration bill, the Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds declared: “This amendment is about making a bad bill better.
“Overseas professionals have been at the frontline of this crisis and cared for our loved ones, as if they were their own. It is an insult and injustice to have this charge in place for them. That is why I would urge Tory MPs to back this amendment.”
And this is revealing of Starmer’s wider approach to holding the government to account. The Labour membership, largely pro-immigration, will no doubt demand that the new Labour leader goes further in his intervention on this issue.
The whole basis of the bill – allowing the government to construct its ‘points-based’ system with an income requirement of £25,600 – unsurprisingly does not sit well with members.
The distinction between migrants who work in the health and care sector and those who don’t is the exact sort of distinction the left hates, and for good reason. For one thing, it forgets the other key workers – from delivery drivers to shop staff – who are keeping the country running.
It also draws a classic ‘good immigrant/bad immigrant’ divide. Implying that a migrant should be willing to risk their lives to be deserving of healthcare in the same way as British citizens.
Given the parliamentary arithmetic, however, Labour is not going to be able to prevent the bill from passing. The Shadow Home Secretary roundly condemned the bill yesterday, and the leadership whipped MPs to vote against it. But with a government majority of 80, it passed easily.
The Labour leadership recognises that and Starmer is taking a pragmatic approach. Chipping away at government policy by focusing on what he feels he can realistically achieve. By highlighting the surcharge, he has identified a more attainable target – with the possibility that he might be able to pick off some Tory rebels.
The move also forced Johnson to defend the surcharge. The PM replied that the NHS “needs funding and those contributions actually allow us to raise £900m”. Starmer will hope he has highlighted the hypocrisy from the Tories, and struck a note that will chime with majority public opinion.
The past four weeks have seen an outpouring of gratitude for our health and care workers – and the Tories have tried to make capital on this too, joining the ‘clap for our carers/NHS’ every Thursday. But the immigration bill, and this surcharge, highlight the reality of the ‘nasty party’. By tabling an amendment on this particular point, the Labour leader will lay bare that hypocrisy.