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