Yvette Cooper: Labour is changing its approach to immigration

Writing for PoliticsHome, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper unveils fresh Labour plans to curb illegal immigration.

Immigration is never an easy issue to discuss. In two thoughtful and important speeches, Ed Miliband has outlined some of the principles that should guide a One Nation approach in the future and recognised mistakes Labour made on immigration earlier in government. We know we have more work to do. But the Conservative led Government should also pause for thought. Public concern over Government handling of immigration is getting worse. And whilst Labour was too slow on immigration, the Tories risk being too simplistic. An honest debate about immigration means looking not just at scale, pace and control, but also at the wider impact immigration has and crucially the different kinds of immigration too.

Britain has long been and must remain an optimistic, outward looking and confident nation. When more people travel and trade across borders than ever before no country can pull up the drawbridge and let no-one in. Our economy and culture have benefited immensely from those who have come here through the generations. We should be proud of being British and of the confident British diversity that London showed off for us in Olympic year.

Yet there is also no doubt that the pace and scale of migration has created new types of pressures. As we said this summer we have to recognise the impact of the pace of migration on resources, strains in the solidarity of communities, and the fact that the costs and benefits of migration were not evenly shared, particularly as a result of low skilled migration. So Labour is arguing for stronger action in the labour market to help working people at the sharp end of globalisation, and a stronger integration strategy to support communities and promote common bonds rather than a segregated society.

We also need an honest debate about the different kinds of immigration Britain experiences in order to get controls and limits right. Yet the Government is failing to do that. As the Home Secretary set out last week, her central focus is to cut the level of net migration to the tens of thousands by the end of the Parliament – a promise she and the Prime Minister made, “no ifs no buts.” All policy measures in the Home Office are clearly judged according to how they contribute to the net migration target.

Ed Miliband has highlighted that the level of low skilled migration was too high and lack of transitional controls meant the number of people coming from Eastern Europe was much higher than expected, which is why we want to see it come down and we need strong controls. We have supported new restrictions on highly qualified migrants coming to Britain only to do unskilled jobs, just as we have supported restrictions on low level college courses which could be abused as a route for people to come and work. We will look at the whole system of control for non-EU migration, including the Government’s cap, to ensure a system that works. But we are calling for a proper debate about the different kinds of immigration too.

The Government’s net migration target is very simplistic. Bizarrely it makes it a sign of success if more Brits move abroad (measuring as it does the difference between immigration and emigration), and indeed the recent drop in the net migration figure was accounted for almost entirely by fewer Brits returning home, more Brits leaving and fewer foreign students.

More importantly it doesn’t cope with different kinds of immigration or recognise their different impact. And as a result the Government is ducking the important debate about not simply the level but the kind of immigration Britain needs. There needs to be a mature recognition that there are different kinds of immigration – immigration that works and immigration that doesn’t both for the immigrant and for the country.

For example bringing more talented students from China or Brazil to learn at Britain’s top Universities not only brings in substantial investment in the short term, it also helps Britain build cultural and economic links with the future leaders of the fastest growing economies on earth. In total foreign students bring in £8bn a year. Yet students are included in the Government’s “tens of thousands” target alongside everyone else. And migration experts have advised that the target won’t be met without a massive drop in the number of people coming to study in Britain.

We must also continue to be a safe haven for people genuinely escaping violence or tyranny. 70% of people in the British Social Attitudes Survey agreed Britain should offer asylum for those fleeing persecution. We should also recognise the exceptional cases of those who have risked their lives to help British interests and face continued threats now. That is why I am calling on the Government to offer a settlement scheme for Afghan interpreters who helped British troops and now face threats from the Taliban as the troops pull out.

The starkest example of the most damaging immigration is illegal immigration – yet here too little action is being taken. People who have entered illegally, absconded from airports or broken the rules undermine the rule of law and badly damage confidence in the entire system. Illegal immigration can also involve criminal exploitation and modern day slavery. Rightly the public feel strongly about this and think it should be the priority for action.

Yet illegal immigration isn’t affected by the Government’s target – and it isn’t being given sufficient priority in the Home Office as a result. With big drops in the number of people being deported or refused entry, and a growing backlog of suspected illegal cases not being followed up, it seems the problem is getting worse. And as enforcement resources are being heavily cut, UKBA doesn’t have the flexibility or powers it needs.

We need much stronger action against illegal immigration to be a priority. That’s why for example Labour’s policy proposals include giving the power of arrest to UKBA compliance officers so they can act swiftly when they discover problems rather than delaying and allowing people to abscond, as well as a new taskforce on enforcement within UKBA.

So the Government’s immigration approach is failing to cut the most damaging forms of immigration and is at risk of hitting beneficial immigration such as graduate students instead. Nor does it tackle exploitation or attempt to reduce demand for low skilled migrant workers from Europe where numbers are not controlled. It ignores the pressure people face in the labour market, as well as the challenges for communities and the need for integration and English speaking too.

Getting immigration policy right means listening to public concerns and also being honest with people about the complexity of immigration and border control in a global economy. People recognise the very different impact from different kinds of immigration, and surveys show they are increasingly sceptical that the Government will deliver on its target or meet their concerns. Labour is changing our approach and we recognise the value of open debate. We might have a more effective discussion about the best immigration policies for Britain’s future if the Conservatives rethought their strategy too.