Labour's Approach to Immigration - Speech of 18th November 2014

Published at: November 19, 2014 10:14 AM


From doorstep to doorstep, street stall to school gate, coffee morning to public meeting, Labour MPs and candidates are talking to thousands of people every week.

And we know that three things come up more than anything else:

  • Worry about the family finances;
  • Worry about immigration; and
  • Worry about the NHS.

Three issues that affect families, communities, and show what kind of country we are.

  • Whether everyone has security and opportunities for the future, or whether rising inequality means too many people are being left behind;
  • Whether we are confident enough and secure in our own borders to look outwards at the world;
  • Whether we sustain those NHS founding principles and stand together in times of need or leave people to sink or swim alone;

So as Ed Miliband said last week, those issues will be at the heart of Labour’s campaign for the next 6 months, as we fight for a country that supports the many and not just the few.

Today I want to talk about Labour’s approach to immigration.

Debate on immigration: division or consensus?

Too often the debate about immigration becomes polarised and unhealthy.

On the one hand we now have an arms race of rhetoric involving the Tories and UKIP over immigration. UKIP are exploiting peoples’ fears, fuelling anxiety and division, and David Cameron is racing to catch up. Between them they promote the idea that immigration is all and always bad, and should always be stopped.

On the other hand some liberal commentators seem to think talking about immigration at all is reactionary, and concern about immigration is irrational. They give the impression that immigration is all and always good, and should all be encouraged.

Both sides shout at each other. Neither are right. And most people don’t agree with either of them.

I’ve held public meetings, discussions and debates on immigration right across the country.

And there is more consensus than you’d think.

Most people think immigration is important for Britain but it needs to be properly controlled.

Most people think there are benefits from immigration, but they also think there are problems – and they don’t think the problems are being dealt with. 

And they are right.

But too often those thoughtful voices aren’t being heard.

In a screaming match – the voice of moderation gets drowned out.

That’s why Labour needs to talk more about immigration – not to ramp up the rhetoric, but to get a practical sensible debate on the reforms we need.

We will not chase UKIP or the Tories, we will take them on and show how they play the politics of division, without any of the practical answers we need.

But nor will we ignore the real problems in our current immigration system, the real concerns people have, or the need for serious reform.

We are setting out a progressive Labour response to immigration reform.

Some people think it is right wing to be worried about immigration or to call for stronger immigration controls.

I disagree.

It is the reactionary right who want to build a wall to keep the world out.

But it is the free market right who want a wide open border – in the interests of cheap labour.

On the one hand the right wing politics of division, on the other the right wing politics of exploitation. Neither will ever be right for Britain, for working people, or for Labour.

The immigration system today

We know both the benefits of migration, and the problems in the current immigration system.

Over many centuries Britain has benefited from the ideas and talents of those who have come here from abroad. From the Dutchman who gave his name to John O’Groats, to the Greek designer of the mini, from the Polish founder of Marks and Spencer, to the Indian-born designer of the iconic Olympic tower.

We need managed migration to get the top talent and investment we need, for our world class universities to compete internationally, or to meet skills shortages in the NHS. And British citizens need to travel and trade to promote our exports, and seek new opportunities.

Britain for centuries has been an outward looking, diverse nation – that is what has made it possible for our small island nation to punch above our weight on the world stage, for British inventions to lead the way from the industrial revolution to the world wide web, for the English language to become the dominant worldwide currency.

In today’s global economy, that outward looking approach is more important than ever.

But if we are to maintain it we have to tackle the challenges that globalisation brings, and the real problems in our immigration system which are in danger of undermining confidence.

Immigration rules are not being properly enforced, and most people think they aren’t fair anyway. The pace and scale of migration in recent years has created real challenges. The system isn’t distinguishing between different kinds of migration - the migration we need and the migration that causes problems.

The impact of migration is unfair, with local workers on low income losing out.

Low skilled migrant labour is being exploited to undercut local wages and jobs – at a time when those on low income already feel left behind and buffeted by the whirlwinds of globalisation. And communities with high levels of migration are experiencing pressure on public services – at a time when budgets are being cut.

Some people are exploiting these problems to divide our communities, spread fear and misinformation, anger and insularity, in a way that will make Britain a weaker, poorer, less confident country too.

Progressive approach

It is time instead for an alternative, progressive approach to immigration – based on what is good for Britain, what is fair for all, where those on low income do not lose out, building stronger rather than divided communities, and regaining public consent.

It is because immigration is important to Britain that it needs to be controlled and managed so the system is fair.

That means we need five things:

An honest debate; challenging the politics of division and misinformation, but honest about the problems and the need for reform;

Stronger enforcement and border controls to build confidence in the system and tackle abuse;

Smarter controls on different kinds of immigration to make sure we get the migration we need that benefits Britain, and can control migration that causes problems;

Action to tackle the unequal impact of migration on jobs and wages so we get a fairer deal for local people and a better deal for our economy;

Fairer rules when people come to Britain to make sure people contribute, promote integration, address the impact on communities and prevent division;


In each of these areas, European migration creates additional challenges. We have even more at stake, in terms of the benefits for Britain of remaining an outward looking country, part of a European political alliance that has delivered peace in a continent once riven by conflict, and an economic single market that has delivered us billions of pounds of investment, trade and support for jobs.

But the challenges are even greater too, as we have fewer migration controls, a faster pace of low skilled migration affecting jobs and wages, and more concern about rules that just aren’t seen to be fair.

And the debate is more extreme too.

So Euro-sceptics exploit worries over migration to argue for the withdrawal from Europe they always wanted.

But some Euro-enthusiasts resist any talk of change.

Neither approach is good for Britain or for Europe.

I agree with John Major - being part of Europe is immensely important for Britain’s future and we must stay in Europe.

But there are genuine problems over the way immigration works and it is pro-European to argue for sensible reforms.

Change is possible, if we negotiate in the right way rather than the megaphone diplomacy the Prime Minister has been pursuing that seems designed instead to drive us towards the exit door.

Attitudes are changing across Europe – not least because other European countries are facing growing challenges in managing the pace and scale of migration, public concern about unfair rules, the impact on the labour market and local services, and the challenges of dealing with illegal migration and border control.

So we should be working to build a consensus for reform, as well as setting out practical steps the Government could take right now to reform free movement and make the system fairer – on benefits, employment rules, foreign criminals, support for communities and public services, and future controls.

Fair movement, rather than free movement.

Labour’s reforms are about better controlling and managing immigration not just in Europe but across the board, so that the system is fairer, and so that we can maintain the benefits of being part of Europe, support our economy in a global market, and stronger communities too.

Other political parties

I don’t believe the other political parties can rise to this challenge.

Yes Labour got things wrong on immigration in the past.

We should have had transitional controls for Eastern Europe. Immigration - particularly low skilled migration - was too high as a result. We should have done more about the impact on low skilled jobs, and communities. 

And we have changed our approach.

But the Tories are failing on every count;

They are failing to promote an honest and sensible debate.

Their grand “no ifs no buts” promise on net migration is now in tatters and people are more sceptical than ever, whilst the ‘Go Home’ ad vans just promoted division. 

They are failing to enforce the rules - under Theresa May border checks, visa enforcement and labour market enforcement have all got worse.

They are failing to have clever smart controls.

So low skilled migration has increased, while at the same time that the number of international University students fell for the first time in decades.

They are failing to tackle exploitation and the unfair impact on jobs and wages.

Zero hours contracts have increased, whilst fines to employers of illegal workers have dropped.

And they are failing to get fair rules in place or help communities with the impact of migration.

As for UKIP, they are promoting division that only makes it harder to get sensible policies in place.

Their call for fewer employment laws and regulations would make it easier still for employers to undermine local working conditions with cheap migrant labour.

And their hostility to Europe would make it harder not easier to deal with the problems in Calais, stop foreign criminals entering Britain or staying here, as well as putting jobs and investment at risk.

And there is a nastiness to their campaigning that debases politics - from the UKIP supporting thugs who wrecked a Labour street stall in Basildon at the weekend to the police commissioner candidate with an election poster depicting abused children in the very communities where those abused children are trying to rebuild their lives.

They try to be the nostalgia party, but offer nothing to deal with today. They wouldn’t take the country back to the good old days, they would pull it down.

Stronger borders

In place of divisive politics, we want determined policies.

First, stronger borders controls and better enforcement of the rules.

The Home Office still 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 long delays leave families into limbo and make it harder for everyone when deportation finally takes place.

A report last week found asylum delays have gone up by 70% and the Home Office no longer know where 50,000 people here illegally have gone.

150,000 cases of potential fraudulent student visas reported but not investigated.

And the Government has wasted four years and £225m failing to sort a contract for more modern border controls.

At Calais there are now serious and growing problems - where we have 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.

Trafficking for sexual servitude and slavery is increasing. It’s time to halt this abuse.

That’s why the next Labour government will introduce exit checks so that we can count people in and out, visas can be enforced.

We will bring back finger printing for illegal migrants caught stowing away at Calais – something the Government has refused to do.

We will work with other European countries to tackle the problems at Calais and implement the Dublin convention so that asylum seekers are helped in the first country they arrive.

To boost enforcement, we need more staff to do the job. As part of Labour’s Zero-Based Review we have looked at how to increase border enforcement when budgets are tight.

We will reform arrangements with non-visa countries, charging a small amount as the United States ESTA programme does, so we can provide additional resources for up to 1,000 more border force and enforcement staff, stronger border policing at Calais and more enforcement of illegal working and over-staying to make sure people play by the rules and make Britain’s borders more secure.

Smarter immigration controls

Second, we need smarter controls and targets to distinguish between different kinds of immigration in place of the Government’s single net migration target which isn’t working and wrongly treats all migration as the same.

For example we need stronger controls on temporary student visitors for short courses because those visas are being abused and the numbers have increased massively in just a few years.

We need much stronger transitional controls when new countries join the European Union.

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. University students should be removed immediately from the net migration target.

And it is frankly immoral to include refugees in a net migration target that the Government is trying to get down.

It means the Home Office has a terrible incentive to fight against every call for action to help desperate refugees – and may lie behind their shocking failure to provide adequate resettlement places to 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.

Crackdown on exploitation

Third, we have to tackle the exploitation of immigration to undercut wages and jobs by irresponsible employers and recruitment agencies, and make sure local people get the quality training and job opportunities they need.

Exploitation is bad for migrants, unfair and infuriating for local workers, undermines responsible business, and is also bad in the long term for the British economy too.

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 who answered agency adverts in Poland promising well paid jobs in Britain – only to discover the jobs didn’t exist, so they were forced to take whatever low paid work they could find. 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.

It’s the 21st century echoes of the Grapes of Wrath – when poor Mid West families were persuaded to leave the dustbowl for the shanty towns of California by leaflets from farmers who were deliberately calling for more labour than they needed in order to keep fruit picking wages down.

Labour is the only party willing to challenge the undercutting and exploitation.

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.

And this is particularly important when it comes to migration from within the EU.

The experts on the government’s Migration Advisory Council have made clear that lack of regulation and enforcement in the British labour market has increased recruitment of low-skilled migration from Europe.

That is why Labour’s plans to stop this race to the bottom of the labour market would be fair, reduce undercutting, be better for the economy, and aim to reduce the number of low skilled workers drawn in from Europe too.

So we will increase the minimum wage and close the loopholes, outlaw exploitative zero hours contracts, and promote a living wage.

We will increase enforcement of employment rules, double the fines for bosses who break the law, extend the Gang masters Licencing Authority and outlaw agencies who only recruit from abroad. And we will make serious exploitation a crime.

We will back reform to employment rules across Europe too. A Labour Government would sign up to stronger restrictions on recruitment agencies through the Agency Workers Directive, and join the majority of other European countries who support strengthening the Posted Workers Directive to prevent undercutting too.

But the flip side of this is that we need far more action on training and job opportunities here in Britain too. So Labour will bring in thousands more apprenticeships for British school leavers and guaranteed jobs that unemployed young people will have to take up.

Too many companies and sectors complain that they cannot get the skills and staff they need, but don’t provide the training or apprenticeships that would deliver.

That is why we have called for companies bringing in skilled workers to fill shortages to demonstrate they are providing local training and apprenticeships too.

And why we need to challenge companies in the care and hospitality sector who recruit widely abroad, but don’t even pay the minimum wage here at home, or companies in the construction sector who say they need overseas labour to meet skills shortages but won’t support the apprenticeships we need. 

Fair rules for those who come to Britain

Fourth, a progressive approach means we need fair rules to make sure everyone is contributing, to address the impact on local communities and promote integration.

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. It is also the surest route to the world of work, business, and getting on with your neighbours too.

Everyone coming to live in Britain should speak English, or learn to speak English as a first step to integration.

With Labour, all public sector workers will be expected to speak English.

Most people who come to Britain work hard and contribute - and contribute to our public finances too. But people want rules to be fair and to make sure that always happens.

The fact that new arrivals from the EU are entitled to swiftly access welfare support, without having contributed to this country, strikes most people as unfair.

Requiring countries to treat new migrants exactly the same as long standing residents create a risk that member states simply cut family support, housing or services for all citizens in order to avoid increasing migration. That kind of race to the bottom undermines social solidarity and isn’t good for anyone.

That is why Rachel Reeves is proposing changes to the benefit rules both here and across Europe so that countries can require people to contribute for longer before they receive support. New migrants should be self-sufficient. We would not expect British citizens to travel abroad and swiftly expect support from foreign taxpayers.

Just as there should not be free movement to claim benefits, there should not be free movement to commit crimes or flee justice.

Deportation of foreign criminals has fallen. And currently the British government does too little to stop EU citizens who have committed serious crimes coming to Britain, and only tries to deport them if they commit a major crime here.

Britain should immediately join information sharing arrangements with Europe and bring in stronger border checks to prevent criminals entering. And Labour would also immediately change the rules so that European citizens who commit a much wider range of offences would be deported home.

And Europe has to recognise that high levels of migration have an impact on local services like housing and school places.

That is why Labour will argue for reform in Europe to create an EU Migration Impact Fund within the existing EU Budget to provide more help directly for those regions which have seen the greatest increase in population as a result of EU migration, to pay for public services such as school places, extra medical staff or housing investment.

But fair rules work both ways.

We will not stand for hostility and division. When people have come here legally, work hard to support their families and are contributing to our country, they should not ever be subjected to abuse or hostility. Nor should their children or grandchildren as the generations pass.

Yet right now anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes are increasing.

I’ve heard from Polish families who have been in Britain for a decade but told me in the last three years they have experienced growing vitriol and abuse – being spat on the bus, shouted at in the supermarket.

Or Chinese families living in Britain for two generations, who told me that their children had experienced a rise in racist abuse at school.

We should not ever tolerate hatred or hostility.

Let’s be clear, it isn’t racist to be worried about immigration or to want immigration reform.

But it is racist – as one UKIP council candidate did – to say Lenny Henry should have to leave the country because of the colour of his skin.

This kind of politics of division doesn’t speak for Britain – for our past or our future. It is against our values and it is not the British way.


Britain has a long and proud tradition of being an outward looking nation. Investing and trading abroad. But also welcoming the energy, ideas and diversity that we get from those who come to our shores to join our proud nation too.

But right now that confidence is at risk.

People are feeling insecure, anxious, pessimistic.

Feeling buffeted by globalisation and abandoned by Government.

We’ve seen years of falling living standards, fast changing communities, people desperate for hope, determined things should be different.

All those things make people more worried about immigration too.

Instead of fixing those problems – be it in the immigration system or the economy - some people are exploiting them.

Theirs is the politics of division. The politics of finding someone else to scorn and blame. A politics that leaves us angrier, poorer, and weaker

We will stand against both the politics of division and the politics of exploitation – whether it comes from the Tories or UKIP.

We need to maintain that outward looking tradition, that confidence, that tolerance, that enthusiasm for things new, that optimism for our future.

Yes that means progressive reforms, stronger controls and better management on immigration, and a sensible measured debate about the best way forward.

Yes that means reforms in Europe so that cooperation works better for Britain and other countries too

But it also means addressing those wider problems, building a stronger future for everyone, fighting pessimism, restoring optimism.

That is what Labour will do.

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