Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's pledge to end restrictions on foreign students will increase its appeal to business

The party's promise to exclude overseas students from any future immigration target puts it on the right side of the economic argument.

David Cameron continues to proclaim his commitment to winning "the global race" and enabling Britain to maintain its international competitiveness. But rarely has there been a better example of the government doing the reverse than its treatment of foreign students.

Owing to the coalition's immigration restrictions, the number of overseas students has fallen for the first time in 29 years from 311,800 in 2011-12 to 307,205 in 2012-13 - Britain is strangling one of its greatest export industries. As well as a decline in EU student numbers from 23,440 to 17,890 (largely as a result of the tuition fees increase), the number of Indian students has fallen from 18,535 in 2010-11 to 10,235, and the number of Pakistani students has fallen from 4,580 to 2,825. In addition, foreign students are now required to find a job paying at least £20,600 within four months of graduating if they want to remain in the country, compared with a previous limit of two years. 

But while the Tories have refused to change course (despite the protestations of Boris Johnson and Vince Cable), Labour is promising to end this economic self-harm. In her speech today on immigration, Yvette Cooper will pledge to exclude students from any future government target. As she said on Today this morning, "we're in danger at the moment of having the worst of all worlds". Illegal immigration, which is not included in the coalition's cap is rising, while student numbers are falling. Cooper will say: 

As we’ve said, the last Labour government got things wrong on immigration We should have had transitional controls in place for Eastern Europe The figures were wrong, and migration was far greater than we expected. As a result the pace and scale of immigration was too great and it is right to bring it downAnd we should have recognised more quickly the impact on low skilled jobs, and the worries people had. 

But let’s be clear: this Government’s approach isn’t working either. David Cameron promised “no ifs no buts” that net migration would be cut to the tens of thousands. But he is failing to meet that target. And net migration has gone up in the latest figures by 60,000 to 210,000. At the same time illegal immigration – which isn’t included in their target – is getting worse. More people are absconding at the border, fewer are being caught and sent home, and the number of people here illegally is growing. Yet fee paying international students at our Universities – who are in their target – have fallen for the first time for 20 years, cutting the investment they bring into Britain. Exploitation of low skilled migrant labour by employers as a cheap option is getting worse. Yet top businesses are worried they can’t get the high skills they need The public are more concerned than ever – especially about the impact of EU migration

It’s the worst of all worlds

As well as excluding students from any overall target, Labour should also adopt a target for growth in their numbers, something Chuka Umunna has said he is "open" to. He said last year: "My big problem with the government at the moment in this area is that our HE sector, as a strong and vibrant export sector, has been taken hostage by the Home Office. And it has to stop. It is doing deep and immense damage. We cannot afford for that to happen to a leading export sector, in the context of our balance of trade deficit." 

Most Labour figures privately acknowledge that the party will struggle to attract significant support from business at the general election. But by promising to abandon the coalition's closed-door approach to immigration, and to maintain Britain's membership of the EU, it has put itself on the right side of the argument on two key enterprise issues. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.