Why Labour should hold its nerve on its apprentices for immigrants plan

The policy will help drive a sustainable, jobs-rich, wage-enhancing recovery and convince the public that Labour is listening to its concerns about immigration.

At one stage, Ed Miliband was considering devoting a section of his big speech today to immigration. In the end, however, it was decided that this would divert from the focus on the economy and living standards. So the announcement made at the weekend that Labour will require big businesses which bring in a skilled worker from outside the EU to also take on a new apprentice is all the new policy on immigration we are going to get at this conference.

Of course the idea has taken a battering from the business lobby.  The British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI and the Institute of Directors have all weighed in to criticise the move as anti-business. 

It’s a charge to which Labour is – rightly – acutely sensitive. But despite the furore in some quarters, the leadership should hold its nerve on this policy. John Longworth, director general of the BCC, claims the scheme will neither control immigration nor help young people into jobs, but the opposite is true. It is a relatively small-scale initiative, but it is just the sort of balanced policy which Labour needs to help drive a sustainable, jobs-rich, wage-enhancing recovery and to convince the public that it is listening to its concerns about immigration.  

For although a recent poll by YouGov suggests those concerns are hardening, IPPR research to be published shortly shows that public attitudes on the nexus between migration and the needs of the economy can be relatively nuanced and mature. People do understand, even if they don’t much like, the fact that British businesses will sometimes have to look overseas for labour, particularly for specialist high skills, where these are not available among the existing domestic workforce. Measures to control overall immigration numbers that prevent such recruitment are clearly damaging to British competitiveness and the public get that.

At the same time, however, people feel very strongly that this approach to dealing with skills shortages should be a matter of short term remedy and not long term dependency. If our economy is going to need workers with certain skills for years to come and we don’t have those skills now we should be training up the domestic workforce. This view is nothing new. Indeed it has long been part of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)’s remit to advise the government not just on what types of non-EU labour should qualify for entry because of domestic skills shortages, but also to liaise with sector skills councils so that in the longer term the UK fills these gaps through skilling up at home.  

All the new Labour proposal does, therefore, is to make more explicit the link between allowing overseas skilled workers entry in the short term and training up the domestic workforce in the long term. It also of course puts more direct responsibility on big businesses to assist in this process - but at a time when the need for business and government to work together to increase apprenticeships is widely recognised this is not an unreasonable requirement either.

As a side bar to the argument with business, there has been a rather diversionary political spat over whether the new apprenticeships created would actually go to British workers.  It is of course the case that apprenticeships in the UK are open to EU and EEA nationals – and in its initial briefing of the policy announcement Labour should have made that clearer. But the Labour Force Survey shows that in the year to June 2013, 92 per cent of apprenticeships were filled by British nationals. So the idea that Labour’s plan would mainly benefit EU migrants is not born out by the evidence. Indeed it may well turn out that the Tory attack was hasty and the Conservatives will find themselves having to match this pledge.

On the wider point, Labour also needs to ride out the initial attacks from predictable quarters and stick with a policy which will surely win public approval. As discussion around the detail continues it may be that Labour should look to see how some of the bureaucratic demands put on business through the operation of Tier 2 (highly skilled) of the visa system can be reduced. But it should do so on the understanding that the basic idea of businesses, alongside government, investing long term in training up domestic workers to fill skills shortages is a sound one.

Home Secretary Yvette Cooper speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Finch is director of communications for IPPR

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.