Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.