Firstly, I recognise that we didn’t always take concerns seriously enough when in government. Yes, we brought in an Australian-style Points System for visas (which is still working well) and biometric ID Cards for foreign nationals, keeping a track on who’d come in and who’d left the country (sadly scrapped by the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition), but much of this was done late on in the last few years of the Labour Government.
And that’s why I welcome the speech made today by my colleague, Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, because it marks a recognition that this issue is one of importance to the next Labour Government, and one that needs to be debated in the open.
I believe immigration is important to Britain. As a country, we have benefited massively from the ideas and talents of those who have come here from abroad over many centuries.
I also recognise that immigration has to be properly managed and controlled so the system is fair, and sadly many people I speak to don’t think the current system is fair.
We need to address these concerns, because too often debate about immigration has been polarised and unhealthy – with the Tories and UKIP engaged in an arms race of rhetoric that exploits people’s fears and creates division on the one hand, and, on the other, some liberal commentators and business advocates saying concern about immigration is irrational.
But I actually recognise the concerns – they have been raised to me on many occasions directly on the doorsteps of Denton and Reddish – even though I represent a constituency that at the recent census 97% identified as being white British.
I know people want us to strengthen our border controls, to tackle exploitation and bring forward fairer rules, certainly if we are to remain an outward-looking nation.
That’s why I’m pleased that it is the Labour Party who are pledging to stop local workers and responsible businesses from being undercut by the unfair exploitation of migrant workers. This is absolutely crucial, because it is happening to people today, and we need to stop it.
And following reports the government are now deporting fewer foreign criminals and have failed to tackle the growing problems at Calais, I’m pleased we’ve announced plans to recruit an additional 1,000 border and enforcement officers. These additional staff need to be tasked with providing additional checks at borders, tackling illegal migration and ensuring visa rules are properly enforced. Again, this is crucial because I know people want to have confidence that fair rules are being enforced at the UK border, otherwise consent in the whole system is compromised.
But I’m also pleased that Labour will never engage in an arms race of rhetoric on immigration, instead we are putting forward practical and workable policies that will make a difference.
Not making promises that aren’t kept or weakening enforcement of the rules – as the Tories have. Not sowing the seeds of division, whilst offering measures that would make matters worse – as UKIP have. And not dismissing the problems out of hand – as the Liberals do.
We need a sensible and grown-up debate, recognising the good as well as the mistakes, and setting out to achieve consensus on proposals to strengthen our border and the enforcement of the rules we all expect to play by. Today’s speech by Yvette Cooper is the start of that process and that’s why I welcome it.