Diane Abbott’s speech on Labour’s plans for a simpler, fairer immigration system

13 Sep 2018
Diane Abbott’s speech on Labour’s plans for a simpler, fairer immigration system and an immigration policy that supports the needs of our economy

***Check against delivery***

Diane Abbott MP, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said:

Thank you all for coming here today.

This is the third in a series of speeches I have promised to deliver on the subject of immigration.

If I may, I would like to recap on the first two of those, and then set out the main theme of my speech here today.

In the first speech I dealt with Labour’s values as they apply to immigration.

I pledged to uphold the right to a family life.

For all those entitled to be here, there’ll be no deportations of family members, no exclusion of family members. And no Minimum Income Requirement for those seeking to come here to be reunited with their family members.

In my second speech I wanted to tackle the Tories’ hostile environment policies, the Windrush scandal and how it should be addressed. This is one of the worst scandals surrounding our citizens and immigration in my lifetime. We demand every aspect of it is put right.

That means treating the entire cohort of the Windrush generation as they should be treated – as British citizens.  All the wrongful deportees and detainees need to be identified. So too do all those unlawfully prevented from re-entering country and all those who were bullied or threatened into ‘voluntary removal’.

Everyone who lost a job, or lost a home, all those denied bank accounts and driver’s licenses need to be identified. They will all need to be compensated and in many cases they need hardship payments now.

But this entire scandal did not fall from the sky. It was not an aberration. It was a product of Government policy. The foundations of the scandal were laid in the Immigration Act of 2014. Its organising principle is the Tories’ ‘hostile environment’ policy. It is brutally summed up by the Prime Minister’s dictum that ‘we will deport first, and hear appeals later’.

All of these will have go to prevent further rounds of the Windrush scandal. Under Labour, the Immigration Act 2014 will go. The hostile environment will go. ‘Deport first, appeal later’ will go. Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres will go. Indefinite detention will go. And of course the Prime Minister and this rotten government will be gone.

The new Home Secretary wants to distance himself from some of the worst aspects of the Windrush scandal. But he himself is guilty of a great injustice. He has refused a hardship fund for those who have lost jobs, lost homes, been denied bank accounts and driver’s licenses.

He is refusing to act despite the real hardship people are facing now. And he is doing it for the most insensitive and bureaucratic of reasons. This is a chapter of the scandal of his own making and he should end it now.

It is not enough in politics simply to say what we are against. That’s true, even if what we are against are the most flagrant breaches of human rights.

The public has a right to know what our alternative will be. And, as we prepare for Government, we in Labour must have a clear idea of how we are going to deliver what we promise – the fair and reasonable management of migration that puts our collective prosperity first.

That will be the content of my speech today.

But let me say now what I won’t be talking about. The Government’s mishandling of Brexit negotiations means that everything is still up in the air, including immigration.

My announcements today will not impinge on these. We cannot argue that the Government puts immigration before trade and prosperity and then do the same ourselves. I won’t do that. Those trade deals, and the immigration component of them will come first. And that goes for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations too.

We do not know what our post-Brexit relationship will be with the EU and with countries outside the EU. It seems very likely that the Government does not know either, and that the Government doesn’t even know what it would like to achieve from those negotiations. Except it wants cake and to eat it.

The Tories have never really negotiated even among themselves properly. They have only ever been positioning themselves for the next leadership contest.

Government failures mean it is impossible today to set out a prescriptive immigration system including the EU and other countries.

What I can do is show how our new system is Brexit-ready.

Brexit-ready means that our new system can be applied and can accommodate any new trade agreements. That is an agreement either with the EU itself or trade agreements with other countries. And it can cover those skills and those workers that we may need who are not covered by the new trade arrangements with the EU or any country.

If access by our trade partners – and by us – is needed as part of any trade deal, our system can accommodate it. It will be Brexit-ready.

There is so much wrong with the immigration system. To be fair these problems did not begin with this Government. They did not begin even in 2010.T

he problems go back decades. And this Government has added a new, cruel, malign twist to the long-running injustice. Windrush is now almost synonymous with injustice.

This Government and its predecessors have been deporting the Windrush Generation. They have also been illegally detaining them, wrongly preventing them from re-entering this country after a trip overseas. And the Government can’t or won’t say how many were bullied and threatened into becoming a so-called ‘voluntary removal’.

How can this happen? The most important factor is that official policy, Ministerial rhetoric and media coverage fails to treat migrants as people.  They have been numbers. They have been a problem. They have been a ‘flood’ and a ‘tidal wave’. According to Philip Hammond they have been marauding.  A former Tory Prime Minister referred to migrants ‘swarming’ into this country. If you believe this rubbish, it’s little wonder the current Prime Minister calls for ‘deport first, and appeal later’. All of this is to cast migrants as a problem. Government Ministers then pledge to ‘deal with’ this problem, or at least limit it. We have had a net migration target in this country of “below ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND” since 2010. And it has never once been met.

Where did this target come from? What analysis was it based on? What study was made of the effects of achieving it, or not? No-one in Government can say. Or will say.

This is not really a target at all. It is fake. It was plucked out of the air, without any evidence. It has never been met. The failure to meet it is blamed on others. This is despite the fact that migration from the Commonwealth and elsewhere outside the EU is within the Government’s control. Yet Ministers and the Prime Minister in particular are wedded to this so-called policy and never tire of repeating it.

Its actual purpose is to allow permanent campaign against migrants and immigration in general. There is a reason for this.

When living standards have suffered the steepest fall since the 1930s, who should we blame? Those who crashed the economy and the Tories (and the Lib Dems) who imposed austerity to bail them out? Or the Government’s answer: Let’s have scapegoats, and blame those who had no responsibility for the economic crisis.

Formerly, the Government blamed so-called ‘welfare scroungers’ for the crisis, even when that included those in low-paid work. Jeremy Corbyn called this out, and the rhetorical attacks on the low-paid ended, even if the financial ones haven’t.

Well, we in Labour are calling out the attacks on foreigners and migrants too. If you work in the public sector, your wages weren’t frozen and your pension cut by foreigners. They were slashed by this Government and its austerity predecessors.

As John McDonnell says, austerity was never a necessity but it was a political choice. A political choice by Tory Governments and the Coalition.

And, where the public sector led, the private sector followed. This was a Government-sponsored downward push on living standards. The Tories are to blame for the slump in living standards. Not migrants.

Labour has no intention of scapegoating migrants. Like the Windrush Generation, migrants usually come here to make a positive contribution to this society, economically, socially, culturally – in every way imaginable.

It is from these polices, clampdowns, “deport first, appeal later”, spurious migration targets, Go Home vans, demonization and false claims, scapegoating that you produce the hostile environment that this Government has created.  These were the policies of Enoch Powell.  He was thrown out of the Tory Cabinet for advocating them. Now, they are Tory Government policy.

Because of this rubbish, Doctors and nurses are refused entry to this country, even though there is a shortage of both and they are coming to take up jobs with the NHS. Only this week NHS Improvement reported more than 107,000 NHS vacancies, including more than 40,000 nurse vacancies. The worst ever figures in the history of the NHS. A ‘national emergency’ according to senior analysts. At the same time, pressure on our hospitals led to one in seven operations being cancelled on the day they were due to take place.

The Government’s immigration mindset includes falsely accusing vast numbers of students of overstaying here and including them in the misconceived immigration target. It means burying evidence that shows that is not the case. It means detaining your own citizens. It means detaining traumatised children and people who have been trafficked or abused. It means indefinite detention. It means making people homeless or jobless. It means getting teachers and landlords to act as snoops and border guards. It means deporting your own citizens from their own country.

All of this must end. Under Labour it will.

We are not interested in scapegoating migrants. We despise all forms of scapegoating.

Instead, Labour begins from what is best for this country. As we have said many times, we will put prosperity and jobs first. To accept the immigrants we need, and those who are entitled to be here. To manage migration in a way that benefits us all. To treat all migrants fairly, humanely, decently and equally. And yes, to swiftly and humanely remove those migrants who are not entitled to be here.

Above all our policy will be based on evidence. It will be guided by our needs. It will be fair and humane. And it will welcome the contribution of all those who are here, irrespective of their country of birth, their religion, or the colour of their skin.

One point I want to emphasise today is on how migrants are treated.  Commonwealth migrants and other non-EU migrants are treated as second-class migrants. They struggle to bring partners or spouses here. They must meet minimum income targets. They can lose their right to residency simply by travelling home for family reasons.

This is not fair. It is not humane. It is not reasonable. Labour will end the established system of first- and second-class migrants. And we will do so, not by treating EU migrants as appallingly as Commonwealth and other non-EU migrants have been treated for a long time. We will level up, not level down. That is the fair thing to do. That is the right thing to do.

So far, I have set out principles guiding our policy.

Now I want to provide some details. We have existing obligations to people who came from the Commonwealth. We must honour those obligations. Beyond that, our priority must be a focus on our living standards and our prosperity.

We have skills shortages in this country. We also have, in some sectors, labour shortages. We need to tackle the skills shortages by increased training, the increased skills of our workforce. And Labour is committed to doing that.

But it takes eight to ten years to train a fully qualified doctor. We have a shortage of doctors now. We also have a shortage of nurses. We will need more engineers, more scientists, more highly qualified professionals and technicians.

We also have labour shortages in some sectors. To give just a couple of examples, we have a shortage of seasonal agricultural workers. Crops have been left to rot. That is terrible for our agriculture. Michael Gove thinks he has addressed this. We shall see.We also have a shortage of social care workers. This means people’s treatment in social care can be rushed, even shoddy – way short of what we would want for our loved ones. And it causes blockages in the NHS, as the absence of social care packages means patients who are well enough cannot be released from hospital.

These are just examples. But they illustrate that we have both skills and labour shortages which our immigration policy can help to address, along with training, education and better pay of our workforce.

There are two key aspects to our new immigration policy. The first is that those who are entitled to be here must be able to exercise that right. That is both people from the Commonwealth as well as the beneficiaries of any new trade deals we strike, with the EU or other countries.

And there are others who we would like to come here in addition to meet our needs. Both groups must have obligations as well as rights. We should also never forget that these are often reciprocal rights. Which means that we Brits can and do enjoy these rights and privileges in other countries too. That should continue.

The second aspect is how we treat people once they are here, after we have agreed they are entitled to come, either through long-standing legal obligations or new trade deals.

To attract the people we want we will have to offer certain clear rights as well as obligations. Labour is already committed to upholding the right to a family life in our immigration policy.

But, as wth any policies (and not just in immigration policy) what is right and fair is also good for us all. If we want the brightest and the best to come here we will need to offer the full benefits of a family life. Otherwise they will simply be attracted to other countries who will offer them those rights and benefits.

Similarly, if we want to attract international students here, we will have to end the ‘hostile environment’ that pervades our treatment of them. They make an enormous cultural, educational and financial contribution to this country.  Other countries are falling over themselves to attract them.

It would be a big improvement if we at least stopped deterring them. Seven thousand students have been wrongly deported, causing great distress and some hardship. The Prime Minister and those who have succeeded her as Home Secretary made no attempts to apologise and provide restitution for this.

As the Migration Advisory Council has said, this policy of self-harm, this hostility to international students that only Theresa May seems obsessed by, should end before it does any further damage.

Labour commits to honouring all its legal and moral obligations to non-EU migrants, many of whom are from the Commonwealth. We will not be rewriting the immigration rules, which successive governments have done every few years, in order to retrospectively exclude people who previously had right to come here.

And we will allow their families to come here if they are entitled to be here. And we will not impose minimum income restrictions on them. A right to a family life is a right. It is not a right if the lower-paid or poor cannot access it.

We also 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. 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 automobile construction, aerospace, pharmaceuticals to name just a few, many highly-skilled workers travel frequently between centres to share knowledge, to add to their skills, to help integrate production.  This can last for years at a time. This rotation of skilled workers across countries may well be part of future trade deals. Otherwise we risk those jobs being lost altogether, as production moves abroad, to places where such travel is allowed.

This also applies to our education system, especially at the highest levels. Academic and scientific research at the highest levels is often a collective, cross-border endeavour.

We want workers here to be part of that collaborative process, to up-skill our workforce, add value, and be higher-paid. It will mean more, or better jobs in this country.

Another issue is frequently ignored in the debate on immigration. This is migrants who create jobs. There are many migrants who come to this country and directly create new jobs by starting up new businesses here, or establish branches of international businesses. That can apply to anything from restaurants to retailers, from law firms to language schools. Their successes make us all better off.

So, today I am announcing that Labour in government will establish a completely reformed work visa policy. This policy will sit alongside the existing visas for business trips, students, visitors and tourists.

The new, integrated, streamlined work visa 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 available to all those we need to come here, whether it is doctors, or scientists, or care workers, or others.

It will be a flexible system. We will 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.

This will apply across a range of jobs, skills and professions. People coming to take up specific job offers, where it can be shown that those jobs cannot be filled by workers already resident here, will automatically be able to come here.

To be clear, once a work visa is granted, people will have the right to live and work here, and to bring their families here. It will be a right we have granted. And we won’t be subjecting people to ID checks.

People coming to establish specific businesses will be allowed to do so. The criteria will be, is this a business which could add value and create good jobs here? If so, the approach will not just be to allow them, but to encourage them to come.

Our work visa system will apply to a range of jobs. Not just the ones the government designates ‘high-skilled’, by which they mean high paid. This is a ludicrous definition , which means this government prevents nurses coming here, while allowing derivatives traders.

We need more workers across a range of sectors. These include physiotherapists, speech therapists, nurses, primary school teachers, many technicians, skilled construction workers, chemists, environmental scientists, social workers, paralegals, electricians and chefs.  And more besides, who aren’t paid anything like what they should be.

Of course, Labour is committed to training workers here to do more specialist jobs. Our new National Education Service will ensure continuing access to skills and knowledge, lifelong learning.

We need more skills and higher pay in our economy, and Labour is committed to both. We demand that of employers, and we will help them achieve it.

We will also strictly enforce minimum wage and equal pay legislation. Under this Government and its predecessors these laws have too often been decorative, not enforced. Not on our watch. And we will strictly enforce rules against any undercutting of existing pay and conditions. We will outlaw completely any overseas-only advertising of jobs.  We will not allow any ‘posted’ workers by overseas companies operating here to have lower than British pay or worse conditions.

But increased training alone may not be enough, even with higher pay. We may still need to welcome overseas workers.

So, the crisis in social care is a factor deepening the crisis in the NHS. As the Royal Colleges say, often the exit door to the NHS is closed.  Again, of course we should be training social care workers ourselves. And we should be paying them better to recruit and retain people. But these alone will not fill the entire gap, certainly not in the short-term.

The Home Office will work closely with the Ministry of Labour we propose, sharing a common cause: our collective prosperity. Working together, we will help all our employers to adapt to changes in the labour market, we will support our businesses and encourage enterprise, we will ensure continuity of our public services and we will protect our labour standards.

We will use intelligence from the Migration Advisory Council, from trades unions, from employers – private and public – and from devolved governments and local and regional elected bodies to identify needs and to meet them.

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? Are you growing the skills of the current workforce? 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 we will simplify it and streamline it, so that it is fit for the twenty-first century. 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.

The question that must be answered is, will this benefit us all? And, if yes, we want you here.

In addition to these, we will of course maintain the existing visas for study and tourism and seek to extend them. We will be encouraging work after study visas. All of these are in our interests. They boost our economy. They sustain and create jobs. They bring in tax revenues that support our public services. And they allow us to link to the rest of the world, to engage with it, learn from it and enrich our own society.

We will be aiming for more tourists to come here. We will be promoting Britain as a great destination for overseas visitors – and not just Buckingham Palace and the changing of the Guard, fascinating as these are to overseas visitors. We want to increase tourism to every part of this country.

A similar approach is needed when it comes to admitting overseas students. We want to welcome them, they enrich our education system and they enrich our society. We want more, not fewer of them.

And of course, the same applies to short-stay business visas. We will be promoting business and business visas with the rest of the world. We would remove the cooling off periods that senselessly ban skilled people from working in the UK. We would remove the absurdity of employers having to wait longer for a visa than their people spend working in the UK on short trips. We will have a trusted employer status, which must be earned and will be monitored. But if you qualify, these short-term work visas will be granted automatically.

You can’t say you want a new, more open, Global Britain, but you want fewer tourists, fewer students and fewer business visitors. That is a nonsense. We want to add to our prosperity and deepening our links with the rest of the world is part of that.

People should be treated equally and fairly. But that is not how they are treated now.

There are many, many forms of discrimination when it comes to how migrants are treated.  Family members and loved ones are discriminated against. Non-EU migrants are treated worse, including those from the Commonwealth. The elderly are discriminated against.  And, as I have mentioned, there is a spurious distinction between so-called skilled and unskilled workers.

We will end all of this. The fair treatment of migrants we want to be here must include their equal treatment.

So, in terms of our immigration system, once trade deals have been struck and we have established who we would like to come here, there will be no unequal treatment based on which countries people are coming from. A fully qualified doctor from Pakistan will be treated just like a fully qualified doctor from Poland, and vice versa.

The same is true of how we will allocate work visas, and the rights that will be attached to them.

The visas will confer the right to live and work here, to bring families here for the duration of that work. It will allow people to switch between jobs. They will not be indentured to one employer – that leaves them open to extreme exploitation and is the surest way to drive down pay and conditions for all. And there will be a pathway to indefinite leave to remain and citizenship, if that is what people want. It will be based on the number of years people are resident and working.

And once in work you will have the right to be treated as a tax paying member of this society, with access to the NHS and to schools for you and your family, and welfare support when things go wrong. We will conduct a public consultation before establishing the most appropriate period of time required for taxpayers to acquire rights of access to public services, but we need to be thinking in months, not years.Again, if workers legally here should find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own, one of the quickest ways to drive down pay and conditions for all is to deny them the subsistence levels of unemployment and other benefits.

A number of my colleagues in Westminster have already pointed out that the charges imposed by the Home Office are in many cases exorbitant. In February, the BBC reported that the Home Office made profits of up to 800% on some immigration applications. The cost of a settlement visa for a dependent relative has increased by 450% over the last ten years.

This is not right. Exorbitant charges hit the poor and those with larger families the hardest. It is discriminatory and unjustifiable. As people come here to work, they pay taxes. They already make a contribution, adding value and contributing to our public services. They should not be double-charged.

Labour will end this rip-off. Charges will be reviewed so that they closer reflect the actual cost.  Even Sajid Javid seems to accept this point, but we will see.Ministers, including the Prime Minister never tire of confusing the appalling treatment of the Windrush Generation with illegal migration.  The whole point about the Windrush scandal was that our citizens, here perfectly legally, were treated as if they were here illegally. This is a product of the hostile environment.

But there are illegal immigrants who come here. The Home Office is extraordinarily inefficient at removing them. People are detained for months, even years on end. It is costly and inefficient.

We will focus on preventing illegal immigration. It wasn’t Labour who cut the Border Force. It was the Tories. Labour’s last manifesto committed to adding five hundred extra border guards, over and above the level we will inherit from this Government. They are vital in the fight against people-traffickers, and the drug and gun smugglers, as well as preventing illegal immigration.

We will also step up the fight against people-trafficking and the vile crimes associated with it- modern slavery, sex-trafficking and so on. Our commitment to increase police numbers by ten thousand officers will help with all of that.

We will also make the system of deportation of overseas criminals much easier and smoother. If a judge issues a recommendation for deportation for serious criminals post-sentence, that should be carried out as a matter of routine. From the prison to the airport.

We will also end the current practice where this Government seems to lay out a red carpet for hate speakers of all kinds to come here, as a recent Newsnight programme showed. Hate speech, the incitement of hatred and acts of violence against others, is illegal in this country. We should not be allowing people into this country who are likely to commit that crime.

There are also the outstanding issues related to EU citizens. EU citizens have been treated abominably by this Government, in an echo of how Commonwealth and non-EU citizens have been treated over many years.

Labour will always treat these millions of people as human beings, not as bargaining chips.But many questions to this Government remain unanswered. The most important question is what the Government intends to do if its new policy proves unacceptable to the EU. What is its fall-back position?In Labour, we have always been clear. Anyone who arrived here under the Freedom of Movement provisions up to the exit date must continue to be accorded those same rights going forward. We also demand the same for our own citizens. This is a reciprocal, and an equal relationship.We are confident that this reasonable proposal will be acceptable, and would expect the EU 27 to agree to it readily, irrespective of any other agreement. We will press for this. We demand the Government should offer it and implement it. We demand Brits in Europe continue to enjoy the rights they were granted when they went there too.

There may be some in the room, and there will certainly some in the media who will say, “Diane Abbott is simply opening the floodgates to unlimited immigration”. Again. There’s no pleasing some people. There is no evidence for this assertion.

I have no immigration target. Labour has no immigration target, either more or fewer. We want the immigration we need and the migrants who are entitled to be here. No more, no less.

So, if you ask me, will there be more or fewer migrants? I can’t tell you this. Just as this Government can’t say how many migrants will come here even though they are foolishly and recklessly trying to control the numbers. They have damaged our economy and our public services in the process. And never even come close to the target.

We will not do that. No plucking arbitrary numbers out of the air, failing to meet the target, and whipping up a panic when those targets are inevitably missed. The truth is this: Either you can have rational, evidence-based criteria for migration. Or you can have numerical targets. But you can’t have both.

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.

We are setting out a rational immigration policy, a fair one, based on the needs of our society and our economy. It is a common sense policy. Something that has been lacking from the immigration debate for far too long.

I think these are the right policies for this country, or society and our prosperity.

My intention today was set out the framework of Labour’s new immigration policy.

In addition to the immigration provisions of any trade deals, there will be simplified work visas. The existing business, visitor, study and tourism visits can sit alongside these. The existing immigration architecture can be encompassed by the new system. In fact we will simplify it and streamline it.

The current system is unjust. But we are taking a practical, pragmatic and evidence-based approach to it. As a result, we arrive at a very different place to the Government in the process.

Our aim is a just system, one that treats people fairly and humanely. A rational system, based on evidence. Above all it will be an immigration system that works for our society, for our economy, for the prosperity and well-being of all of us.

It is an immigration policy in keeping with Labour values.

It is for all businesses, all workers, for nurses not just for city traders. For the many, not the few.

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