Border Force staff check a shipping containers at Southampton docks on August 13, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour will take a progressive approach to immigration. But we must address people's concerns

A stronger and fairer system is the right response to both the positives and negatives immigration can bring.

When I talk to people across the country, one of the main issues they raise with me is immigration. Most people don't want to see us close our borders, pull up the drawbridge and cut ourselves off from the world. Most people recognise immigration is - and will continue to be - important to Britain. But they are concerned about some of the impact it has had on their local community. They are worried, for example, about the impact on their wages, on the number of local jobs available and on the NHS, schools and housing. And the truth is that, for a long time, politicians did not recognise or talk enough about these legitimate concerns.

But Labour has recognised this, and recent speeches from Ed Milliband and Yvette Cooper and the announcements the party has made this week on strengthening our borders, arguing for reform in Europe to make the system fairer and tackling the undercutting of jobs and wagers in our labour market are just the latest in our responses to people’s concerns, and in us looking at the facts and setting out a plan of action to make immigration work better for everyone.

Immigration is important to Britain, and Labour will not shy away from making that case. Our country has benefited over centuries from the hard work, skills and creativity of people who have come here to start businesses, work in our NHS, our armed forces, or study In our universities. But we also know immigration but needs to be managed and controlled so the system is fair.

The Tories' approach simply isn't working. David Cameron’s promise to get net migration down to the “tens of thousands”. But net migration is at the same level now as it was in 2010 - over 200,000. So this is just another broken promise from the Prime Minister, which undermines people’s trust in politicians to keep their word on immigration. 

And Ukip’s approach is worse; they would make it harder to tackle illegal immigration and deport foreign criminals by stopping us working closely with our partners across Europe, not to mention the recent offensive suggestions that they might want to repatriate people living here already.

So Labour want a different approach built on our values. We want to welcome the international talent and trade we need for our country to thrive and grow. But we do need to strengthen our borders and introduce clear and enforceable rules so we can do more to tackle illegal immigration and ensure people who come to our country contribute. There is no contradiction in those approaches, and both are vital in building an immigration system that commands the public’s trust.

We believe the system does need to change. At the moment we don’t know who has come here and who has left, so it is very difficult to know how many people are illegally overstaying their visas or remain here after failed asylum applications. We would introduce a new system so we can count people in and out of the country. And Labour would also make it easier to deport people who come here and commit crimes.

It isn’t fair that people can come to our country and claim child benefit and child tax credits for children living abroad.  So we would stop that, and we would significantly extend the period before people can claim benefits. This is key because it’s about ensuring taxypayers' money is used fairly; it can’t be right that children who aren’t in the UK are benefiting from British social security spending.

And we need much stronger action to stop employers who are exploiting cheap migrant labour to undercut wages and jobs - stopping agencies who are only recruiting from abroad, or firms that are exploiting zero-hours contracts or not paying the minimum wage. The Tories and Ukip at their core don’t believe in helping and protecting workers, so no other party is even talking about that, let alone introducing policies to tackle it. 

Labour wants to see progressive immigration system - but that has to recognise that the immigration we’ve experienced in the past 20 years has had some negative effects, particularly for those in low-skilled and low-paid work.  These are the people for whom the Labour Party was first formed, and it isn’t progressive to gloss over their experiences and concerns. Managed migration that stops these negative effects by changing the immigration system to be stronger and fairer is the only progressive response to both the positives and negatives immigration can bring. 

So at this election it should be clear that Labour will not follow the escalation of rhetoric offered by those on the right.  We will offer a different approach to immigration. A progressive approach built on our principles, an immigration system that is good for Britain; and one that makes immigration work for all.

David Hanson is Labour MP for Delyn and shadow Home Office minister

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.