by Jack Tunmore
Ed Miliband’s speech in Rochester and Strood this week provided some welcome clarity on Labour’s immigration policy. It is certainly encouraging that he chose to focus on specific and achievable measures that directly affect millions of people: stopping the exploitation of workers and the undercutting of wages will be both progressive and effective, as will closing loopholes that allow agencies to hire only from abroad. A crackdown on illegal immigration as part of his Immigration Reform Bill will no doubt be popular – but Miliband was also at pains to stress that both he and by-election candidate Naushabah Khan were the children of immigrants and were proud of the contribution they and many like them had made.
These clear and concrete policies contrast well with Cameron’s increasingly alarming drift towards Brexit. They are also particularly timely as the whole political spectrum expresses incredulity that the Prime Minister had supposedly just discovered the UK had been landed with a £1.7 billion EU surcharge – Civitas damningly concluded that “this is all a problem of David Cameron’s making”.
Labour now has an opportunity to inject some nuance and decency into the immigration debate. An important start would be a wholesale reappraisal of our asylum system.
That is not to say that the asylum system will be a major election issue; or that such an appraisal would not be difficult. A report from the Migration Observatory published in July noted that attitudes towards immigration are more negative in the UK than they are in the US and much of Europe, with asylum seekers being held in much lower regard than students or high-skilled migrants. Reform of our asylum system is however a chance for Labour to show that we can lead rather than just follow the immigration debate. A balance of compassion and pragmatism is required.
It would be hugely positive, for example, for Labour to lead strongly on the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration John Vine’s report published last week which examined how asylum claims made on the grounds of sexual orientation are handled by the Home Office. To summarise: they are handled disgracefully, with “intrusive” interviews that sometimes even question the validity of same-sex relationships. Such questioning has no place in our society and Labour should be saying so loud and clear.