Brown toughens rhetoric on immigration
By James Boxell, Home Affairs Correspondent
Published: November 12 2009 14:20
Last updated: November 12 2009 14:20
Gordon Brown has stepped up the rhetoric on the issue of British jobs for British workers as the ruling Labour party fights to halt the erosion of its traditional support and the rise of the far right ahead of next years general election.
In a speech in London on Thursday, the UK prime minister said he wanted better training for the domestic workforce to ensure that companies did not need to go abroad to hire engineers, chefs and care workers.
The government will also explore tougher visa requirements for students, an area that has been abused regularly in recent years.
However, the speech did not herald any change to the existing points-based immigration system, which restricts the admission of non-European Union workers to professions where there are skills shortages and to high-flyers, entrepreneurs and investors.
Responding to criticism that his party has failed to take the fight on immigration to the far right British National Party, which won two European parliament seats in June, Mr Brown argued: I have never agreed with the lazy elitism that dismisses immigration as an issue, or portrays anyone who has concerns about immigration as a racist.
Alan Johnson, the home secretary, acknowledged last week that the government had been maladroit in handling the issue of immigration, in particular through avoiding real debate on its impact on the country. At the European elections, Labour lost ground to the BNP in its traditional heartlands in the north of England as white working-class voters complained that their concerns on immigration were being ignored.
Mr Brown said on Thursday: If you are working for a multinational company in a growing sector in a big city then a more diverse workforce from across the world is likely to seem like an exciting source of new ideas.
If you work in a sector where wages are falling or an area where jobs are scarce, immigration will feel very different.
The government confirmed on Thursday that they would accept the recommendations of the Migration Advisory Committee to remove civil engineers, hospital consultants, aircraft engineers and ships officers from the skills shortage list. This means the number of jobs open to non-EU workers will dip slightly from 530,000 to 500,000. Mr Brown promised to bring this down further.
The government has been accused in recent weeks of deliberately pursuing an open door policy on immigration, claims it has vehemently denied. The Office for National Statistics estimates that Britains population will hit 70m by 2029, putting an enormous burden on public services.
However, Mr Brown and some immigration experts argue that this does not take into account the fact that net migration, notably from Poland and other EU members, has been falling since the recession and is likely to continue declining.
Frank Field and Nicholas Soames, the Labour and Conservative MPs who head up the cross-party Balanced Migration Group, said: The prime minister misses the big picture. The points-based system has no limit, affects just 20 per cent of immigration, and will not stop the UKs population hitting 70m in 2029. What is needed is a clear political commitment to make a very substantial reduction in immigration.
The opposition Conservative party, comfortably ahead in the polls, has promised to introduce a cap on immigration, though critics argue that this is also unlikely to make a significant difference because it could only be applied to non-EU workers and students.
Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, said: Gordon Browns speech had a completely hollow ring to it. This is the government that tried to cover up a deliberate policy of increasing immigration and the prime ministers comments show that he has no idea about how to deal with the whole question of immigration now.