On Tuesday 9th March Keir gave a keynote speech to the BritishAmerican Business Immigration Conference, where he laid out his initial thoughts on how we need a more front-footed, evidence-based and pro-business approach to immigration.
Read the full speech below.
Thank you to Chris [Macgrath] for that introduction and to British American Business for inviting me to speak to you today.
The voice of business is absolutely crucial to this debate and to finding a fair and effective immigration policy.
But it is a voice that this Government has often ignored or allowed to be drowned out.
That is why this conference is such an important opportunity to restate and re-emphasise the concerns businesses have about immigration policy and how we can look to take forward that agenda.
It is also a real pleasure to follow Sir David [Metcalf], who has such an important role with Migration Advisory Committee in providing advice and evidence to the Government on how we can make the immigration system work better for business, public services and the wider community.
Politicians of all hues rightly pay close attention to the MAC as a respected, independent voice in this often heated debate.
So I hope the Government listen to the points Sir David raised today about the Tier 2 visa regime. I can assure you that I, as Labour undertake a review of our approach to this vital issue, certainly will.
The importance of a strong independent voice in this debate also touches on one of the key themes that I want to pick up on today: that we need a far more evidence-based and considered approach to immigration than we have seen in recent years.
An approach that is based less on rhetoric, and more on the best interests of the British economy, social cohesion and business.
Let me start by talking you through some of the work I have been undertaking since I was appointed as Labour’s Shadow Immigration Minister in October.
I am sure you can imagine that as a new MP, there may have been easier roles for me to take up.
And whenever I tell people that I asked for and relish this brief, they look at me mainly with confusion. Or disbelief.
Which I guess is understandable.
Immigration, after all, has been an issue that has caused huge challenges for Labour and, indeed much of the wider centre and left of British politics for the last decade.
Over that period Labour has too often been squeezed between - on one hand - the simple if ineffective answers of UKIP and the Conservatives and, on the other, the equally ineffective response that immigration is an issue that is somehow best ignored.
The result is that we have appeared too defensive on this issue for too long and too unwilling to listen and respond to the legitimate concerns people across the country have about immigration and community cohesion.
Or, as the Beckett report rather kindly put it, immigration is one of the areas Labour “failed to convince” voters on at the last election.
We also know that immigration is not going to drop down the public or political agenda anytime soon.
An IPSOS MORI poll published on Friday reminds us that 44% of people believe that immigration is the most important issue facing Britain today.
That was the highest answer given – more than the NHS, more than the economy, more than education and schools.
With the refugee crisis worsening and the EU Referendum debate set to dominate over the coming weeks, we should perhaps expect that figure to rise before it falls.
And that, in a word, is why I asked for the brief as Shadow Immigration Minister – because if Labour cannot provide a confident, front-footed answer to what is now the issue of our time, then we have no hope of winning back public trust or power.
Developing that more sure-footed approach to immigration is, of course, a long-term piece of work.
So today I am merely setting out my initial thoughts and some of the key questions that I believe we need to answer.
The first task I had as Shadow Immigration Minister was to respond to the Government’s Immigration Bill that is currently going through Parliament.
This was an eye-opening experience for many reasons.
Firstly, as I’m sure you know, this Bill is a narrow piece of poison left over from the last Parliament.
Amongst other things it outsources immigration checks to landlords by threatening to criminalise them if they let a property to anyone without a valid immigration status.
It creates a new offence of illegal working and it tries to force asylum seekers to leave the country by effectively making them destitute.
At the same time, it does nothing to reduce net migration, to improve security at our borders or to address failings in the current system such as on immigration detention.
As you can imagine, I spent many weeks and months fighting this Bill in the Commons and in line-by-line scrutiny in Committee.
I thought that if I could show that the measures in the Bill would not work and that the Government had not provided evidence to back them up, the Government would drop them.
I was obviously thinking as a lawyer and not a politician.
Because it soon became clear to me that, even when the Government were confronted by clear evidence or by expert testimony that these proposals would at best be ineffective and at worst would make the immigration system even more unfair, bureaucratic and chaotic, they weren’t interested.
Because the purpose of this Bill is simply the rhetoric that surrounds it – that the Government are “doing something” on immigration, even if it manifestly isn’t the right thing to do.
I have to say this was a revealing insight into how Parliament makes laws.
It also prevented me from getting started on the far more important project of recasting and rethinking Labour’s approach to immigration.
I have always believed that the best way to go about projects that this – those that will be controversial and where, inevitably, you cannot please all the people all the time – is to make sure that you engage as many people as possible and as regularly as possible in the process.
And that means getting out of Westminster and listening to people around the country.
So I am currently in the middle of a series of visits to every country in the UK and region in England to listen to businesses, universities, trade unions, charities, Party members and the wider public about immigration.
These are not meant to be comfortable visits, but they have certainly been illuminating.
Last week I was in Glasgow where…..[insert]
And on Thursday I will be Northern Ireland.
I have also been to Oldham, where I saw both sides of the immigration debate.
I spoke with businesses that told me they absolutely relied on migrant workers and that if tomorrow they could not recruit from outside the UK, they would go out of business. They were all too clear on the impact that would have on the local economy and workforce.
I also heard from workers who felt they had seen their wages drop as a result of large numbers of EU migrants coming into the town. [insert].
And I heard from people who had lived in Oldham all their lives, had bonded and befriended migrant communities, but felt the current speed and scale of immigration was affecting their community and the fabric of their society.
Those are all entirely legitimate concerns and Labour need to show they are our concerns as well.
In Wolverhampton I met with the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, Wolverhampton University and a group of 50 or so pensioners in the Upper Gornal Pensioners Club.
I can assure you there were different views on immigration in those three meetings!
And I have also held roundtables and one-to-one meetings with a range of organisations – including the Institute of Directors, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the TUC, the BMA and the National Farmers Union.
These have all been invaluable experiences in helping inform me about where Labour’s immigration needs to go. Because nothing quite brings home to you the challenges we face in immigration policy than meeting those affected and hearing their concerns.
It is, as I emphasised earlier, an early stage of this policy process but already some things are clear to me.
Firstly, that the current Government’s approach is simply not working.
They have a net migration ‘cap’ that is in tatters, with net migration currently more than three times their stated aim.
This is a target that is eroding public trust – the inevitable consequence of failing to deliver a “no ifs no buts” promise – and is quickly establishing a damaging law of unintended consequences that is affecting British businesses and the British economy.
I have heard widespread concern from businesses and in particular universities and FE institutions over a whole range of Government immigration policies.
For example, the abolition of the Post Study Work Visa is clearly something that needs to be looked at and we need to see what more can be done to help businesses and universities attract and retain high quality graduates - people who, in the words of James Dyson, could have the 'ideas and skills to turbocharge the UK economy' for years to come.
I am also yet to hear a compelling argument for including international students in the net migration figures.
And I am deeply concerned about the long-term affect this is having on our leading institutions, business and our economy as well as the reputation of UK PLC.
In my view, the sooner this policy is reviewed, the better.
Labour will also look at the damage that is being caused to our businesses, economy and public services by the Government’s current approach to Tier 2 Visas.
Because this is perhaps the clearest example of the unintended consequences that can flow from an immigration policy designed to create headlines rather than address the country’s immigration needs.
Tier 2 visas are for ‘skilled’ workers with job offers from companies willing to sponsor them.
In short, these are precisely the kind of people we should be encouraging to the UK – those who will contribute, who have skills British companies need and who will, even on the Government’s own assessments, boost the UK economy.
Interestingly, in my visits around the country, this is also the type of migration that the public appear to have least concern over.
When I was in the Upper Gornal Pensioners Club, various people said to me that they had no problem with skilled migrants coming to the UK to fill skills gaps – particularly in key public services. They lamented the lack of high-quality skills and vocational training in the UK but they did not object to migrant workers filling those gaps when needed.
Yet, for all the Prime Minister’s focus on migrant benefits in recent months, the Government have also decided to clamp down on this relatively small number of skilled in-work migrants – capping the number at 20,700 at a time when net migration stands at 323,000.
Businesses around the country have told me that this is seriously restricting their ability to recruit the skilled workers they need.
The CBI has emphasised that the Tier 2 ‘cap’ means that people who would be able to make a net contribution to the UK economy and support investment are being refused entry.
The Home Affairs Select Committee have also warned that while the Tier 2 cap ‘plays a very limited role’ in restricting net migration, it has meant that in the last year those refused under the cap include engineers, IT professionals, teachers and nurses.
Are these really the kind of people Britain should be turning away? And are we willing to harm our economy to do so?
The Government’s response to these concerns has been characteristically disengaged. Once again, they are concerned more with being seen to control this form of migration rather than the impact the policy is having on businesses and the economy.
Just yesterday in Parliament I took part in a debate where the Government defended their decision to introduce a £35,000 earnings threshold for anyone on a Tier 2 visa seeking Indefinite Leave to Remain.
This policy would restrict the right to remain in the UK for those in skilled professions and who have been contributing to the economy and society for five years.
It would mean that – on the Government’s own estimates – 48% of migrant nurses, 37% of migrant primary school teachers and 35% of migrant IT and software professionals would be unable to stay in the UK.
Obviously, like others, Labour welcomes the fact that nursing is currently on the shortage occupation list but the Government have failed to confirm that will remain the case.
This is, of course, a real concern for the NHS and the nursing profession.
Once again, nothing has been said to provide reassurance to the teaching profession, which will also risks losing skilled, trained teachers through this policy.
I pointed out to the Government that their own impact assessment estimates this policy will reduce our GDP by around £288 million over ten years and that it would have next to no impact on net migration.
Indeed, page 14 of the Government’s own impact assessment makes this abundantly clear – stating that, and I quote:
“We estimate that these restrictions on settlement will lead to some reductions in net migration of between 0 and 4,000 per year”.
On current figures, that would simply reduce net migration from 323,000 to 319,000.
At cost to the UK economy of nearly £300 million
The Minister didn’t really dispute these facts, but maintained support for the policy nonetheless.
The Government therefore asked the House to agree a policy that will cost the country millions of pound a year, deprive businesses and services of key workers and force people who are making an economic and social contribution to the UK to leave the country.
I pointed that rather than go ahead with this policy, it would be far better to ring fence some of the money that would be saved to help boost skills and vocational training for local workers
Another point business routinely make to me it that the constant changing of immigration laws, thresholds and visa requirements and the creation of more and more bureaucracy is having a significant impact on our businesses and universities.
Wolverhampton University, for example, told me they have a dedicated compliance unit whose main role is to make sure the university abides by ever more complicated immigration laws. University groups confirmed this is mirrored across large part of the sector. This, at a time when the HE sector is being hit by significant staff and funding cuts.
Businesses are also seeing the costs of compliance rise and, if the current Immigration Bill becomes law, so will wider parts of the economy, including landlords.
Underlying these problems is the chronic short-termism of current Government thinking.
One example of this is the serious and growing skills gap in our economy.
Businesses across the country – from haulage firms in Stoke to [insert from Glasgow] have told me that one of the main drivers of net migration is the shortage of trained British workers.
The shortage is most acute in STEM subjects, engineering and IT, but also we see it in a shortage of teachers and nurses, so that schools and NHS Trusts increasingly have to look abroad to fill posts.
I think that should be a source of national shame.
And the Government should be doing far more to address it.
Instead, we have seen cuts to nurse training places and bursaries and a chronic failure to focus on improving the quality and breadth of vocational training in our schools and colleges.
Addressing these skills gaps and thereby reducing the long-term drivers of migration will play an important role in Labour’s policy reviews.
I recognise, of course, that there is a difficult balance to be struck on this issue between the needs of business and the concerns of the public.
And I do not pretend to have found that in 5 months in this role.
But I believe we can start to by having an honest, open and fact-based debate.
One that breaks immigration out of its narrow toxic seam and locates it properly among much wider debates: the nature of our economy, of skills training, education, housing and public services
One that focuses less on a single headline number and more on the wider needs of our economy and society.
Because surely we can do better that an approach that arbitrarily restricts skilled migration even though it will harm our businesses, our economy and – as the CBI have warned – our global standing.
Surely we can aim higher than – in the Home Secretary’s words – making Britain a hostile environment for migrants?
And surely we can have the confidence to make the case that strong rhetoric and economic masochism is no substitute for a considered immigration policy.
In the weeks and months to come I will be meeting with businesses and interest groups around the country to discuss these issues in more detail.
Doubtless the looming EU Referendum will play an increasingly pronounced role in those discussions as polling day approaches.
I welcome that, as I believe that the more we can get across the facts about our role in the EU – it’s absolutely central role in our future economic prosperity, our security and place in the world – the better the debate will be.
We also need to have a more informed, fact-based debate about the benefits and implications of EU migration. Again, we should not ignore people’s legitimate concerns but we should be confident of the overwhelming case to remain in the UK.
So I look forward to hearing your views. And I thank you for listening to mine.