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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.

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

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.