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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.