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I recently delivered the third in a series of keynote speeches on the subject of immigration as shadow home secretary.
In the first speech I dealt with Labour’s values as they apply to immigration. Specifically, I pledged to uphold the right to a family life and explained that, under Labour, for all those entitled to be here, there’ll be no deportations of family members or exclusion of family members.
In my second speech I tackled the issue of the Windrush scandal and how this related to the Tories’ “hostile environment” policies.
My central point here was that the Windrush scandal did not fall from the sky but was a product of the Tories’ “hostile environment” policy and laid out in the Immigration Act of 2014, both of which will go under Labour.
But it is not enough in politics simply to say what we are against. The public has a right to know what our alternative will be.
This was the aim of my recent speech, namely to outline how we in Labour have a clear idea of how we are going to deliver the fair and reasonable management of migration that puts our collective prosperity first.
There is much wrong with the immigration system and, to be fair, some of these problems go back decades, but this government has added a new, cruel, malign twist to long-running injustices.
Specifically, the Tory government and its predecessors have been deporting the Windrush generation, illegally detaining them and wrongly preventing them from re-entering this country.
How could this happen?
The Tories are to blame for the slump in living standards. Not migrants
The most important factor is that official policy, ministerial rhetoric and media coverage fail to treat migrants as people. They have been numbers and a problem. They have been a “flood” and a “tidal wave.”
As part of this approach, we have had a net migration target since 2010. It has never been met, yet the Prime Minister in particular is wedded to this so-called policy.
Its actual purpose is to allow a permanent scapegoating campaign against migrants.
When living standards have suffered the steepest fall since the 1930s, rather than blame those who crashed the economy and those who imposed austerity to bail them out, the government’s answer is to blame those who had no responsibility for the economic crisis.
The Tories are to blame for the slump in living standards. Not migrants.
If you work in the public sector, your wages weren’t frozen and your pension cut by foreigners. They were slashed by Tory austerity.
Labour has no intention of scapegoating. Instead, Labour begins from what is best for this country and will put prosperity first. Our policy will be based on evidence and guided by our needs.
We have economic needs that dictate we need migrants to tackle skills shortages and labour shortages. As the recruitment crisis in the NHS shows, we have skills shortages in this country.
Labour, of course, is committed to increased training and education across the entire economy, but we must have no illusions that increased training alone will fill all these skills gaps in the near future. It takes eight to 10 years to train a fully qualified doctor. We have a shortage of doctors now.
What is true in the NHS is also true in many other sectors of the economy.
There are other types of skills-related migration too. In automobiles, construction, aerospace and pharmaceuticals to name just a few, many highly skilled workers travel frequently between centres to share knowledge, to add to their skills and help integrate production. This can last for years at a time.
This also applies to our education system. Academic and scientific research at the highest levels is often a collective, cross-border endeavour.
We want workers to be part of that collaborative process to upskill our workforce, add value and be higher-paid, meaning more and better jobs in this country.
For these reasons, Labour in government will establish a completely reformed work visa policy to sit alongside the existing visas for business trips, students, visitors and tourists.
This will allows us to offer rights of work and residency to a range of professions, workers and those creating employment who want to come here.
It will be flexible and avoid the idiocy of preventing doctors and nurses from coming here to take up job offers. Others, such as scientists and other specialists can also be included. And employers — that is private firms or public sector bodies and others — will also be allowed to apply for work visas for very specialist skills to build flexibility into the system.
We will strictly enforce minimum wage, equal pay legislation, and rules against any undercutting of existing pay and conditions
Our work visa system will apply to a range of jobs and not just the ones the government designates “high-skilled,” by which they mean high paid. This is a ludicrous definition, which prevents nurses coming here, while allowing derivatives traders in.
Alongside this we will strictly enforce minimum wage and equal pay legislation and rules against any undercutting of existing pay and conditions.
We will outlaw completely any overseas-only advertising of jobs and not allow any “posted” workers by overseas companies operating here to have lower than British pay or worse conditions.
Unscrupulous employers will not be allowed to game the system. If you are an employer seeking multiple or repeated work visas, we are entitled to ask, are you investing in training and apprenticeships here?
If not, we will look on repeat applications for overseas work visas very unfavourably. If you are and still need to recruit overseas, great. We will all benefit from economic expansion that follows.
We will build a flexible system, one which incorporates the existing immigration architecture but will simplify and streamline it. As our needs change, or as shortages or surpluses develop, we will adjust the system accordingly, but the entire system will be based on those needs.
For this reason we will have no immigration target, either more or fewer. Instead, we want the immigration we need and the migrants who are entitled to be here.
As we learnt in the Windrush scandal, if you have numerical targets for deportation, you end up deporting your own citizens. Or you can have numerical targets for visas and you end up excluding doctors, nurses, engineers and others.
Instead Labour is setting out a rational immigration policy, a fair one, based on the needs of our society and our economy — something that has been lacking from the immigration debate for far too long.
Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and is a supporter of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs. She writes this column fortnightly.
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