Ian Austin MP

Labour MP for Dudley North

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Austin: We must listen to mainsteam concerns about immigration

Speaking in a House of Commons debate on the Immigration Bill, Dudley MP Ian Austin calls for action to tackle mainstream concerns on immigration.

Full text of the speech:

In April 1939, a ten-year-old Jewish boy from a small industrial town called Ostrava in what was then Czechoslovakia was put on a train by his mum and teenage sisters.

He was the only member of his family able to leave, and it was the last time he’d see them.

He arrived in the UK able only to speak three words of English but became the youngest grammar school head teacher in the country, was honoured with an MBE for his education and his charity work and adopted four children, of whom I am the second, so I know all about the benefits that immigration can bring to individuals, our communities and our country.

But I also know that immigration is something many people are very worried about.

The latest research from the Oxford Migration Observatory shows immigration has ranked in the top five issues for British people for many years, and has ranked as the number one issue for our country in many of the most recent polls.

Approximately 3 out of 4 British people want to see immigration reduced, and their concerns apply to both EU and non-EU migration.

There is no point mainstream politicians trying to ignore this or refusing to listen to people.

Of course it would be easier to spend all our time moaning about the government or talking about the NHS, but the subject of the conversation we have with the people we represent isn’t just up to us, and it’s our job to listen to people on this and come up with fair and reasonable ways of addressing their concerns.

It’s when we fail to do so that reasonable people with legitimate concerns turn to UKIP or, in the past, the BNP.

So I’ve worked hard to listen to listen to local people in Dudley and I’ve held dozens of community meetings over the last two years on this issue.

The truth is: most people are reasonable, fair and pragmatic when it comes to immigration and other contentious issues.

Detailed research from British Future shows that most people are in the ‘anxious middle’, wanting fair controls on immigration but not a closed border.

There’s no way I’m going to pander to people, copy UKIP or exploit these issues, but we do have to listen to the questions and concerns of the people we represent and come up with fair and reasonable answers.

Mainstream politicians should be working in their communities to come up with fair and reasonable solutions to tackle exploitation, the undercutting of wages or some of the other challenges presented by immigration.

It’s not ‘trying to out-UKIP UKIP’:  it’s being part of a mainstream Labour Party that takes the concerns and worries that ordinary people have seriously.

The vast majority of the hundreds of people who came to my meetings on immigration and the many thousands who completed my detailed surveys agreed that people with the skills we need should be able to come here, but that we should train more British youngsters to do these jobs too.

They felt people should not be able to come here and be unemployed, claim benefits until they have worked and paid in or claim benefits for children that are not in the country.

And they agreed that Britain has always provided a safe haven for people fleeing persecution abroad.

After listening to people in Dudley I promised to speak up for them in Parliament and push for a Labour Immigration Bill to address their concerns.

For example, I welcome the Bill’s adoption of a Labour policy to help train the next generation of skilled workers here in Britain instead of hiring from abroad. 

Labour’s policy would have forced large firms to take on a local apprentice every time they took on a skilled foreign worker, so I think this should go further, but I am pleased that some funding from skilled worker visas will now be put towards apprenticeships.

At the last election I also supported Labour proposals to criminalise the illegal exploitation of foreign workers and create a new Home Office unit to enforce the law, so I support this Bill’s proposals for a Director of Labour Market Enforcement and stronger sanctions against those who employ illegal workers.

Likewise I have always said that if you want to live in Britain you must be prepared to work hard and pay your way, obey the law, uphold the values that make Britain the greatest country in the world and speak English, because there is no other way to play a full part in British society. 

So I think it is right that this Bill will make it easier to monitor foreign nationals that have broken the law and ensure that customer-facing public workers speak fluent English.

Most working people will think it is also completely right that this Bill looks to tackle illegal immigration and its links with organised crime, people trafficking and exploitation which has a knock on effect on our communities, on wages and on public services. 

But there are a number of measures that I’m worried about.

First, the government has not yet provided any evidence that the trial of plans to intensify the ‘right to rent’ scheme that requires landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants has cut illegal migration and there are worrying signs that it made it much harder for British people from other backgrounds to find a home.

More than 40% of landlords who took part in the pilot said they were now less likely to rent to people without a British passport, and more than a quarter said they wouldn’t rent to people with foreign names or accents.

People in Dudley have always told me that they welcome those who come here to work hard and make a contribution. 

They are concerned about the impact of illegal immigration on exploitation, wages and public services, but I don’t think reasonable people would support a measure that could prevent British people who have worked and contributed to this country for decades from finding a home just because they have a foreign-sounding name or accent.

Second, the government must go much further to enforce the minimum wage so unscrupulous employers can’t exploit foreign labour to cut costs and drive down wages.  I want bigger fines for breaking the rules, and a ban on recruitment agencies hiring solely from overseas.

Third, we should introduce changes to benefit entitlement right now instead of waiting on the Prime Minister’s negotiations with the EU.

There should be a much clearer relationship between benefits and contribution so people only receive benefits if they have worked and paid in for at least two years and there’s absolutely no reason why people should be able to claim child benefit for children that living abroad.

Fourth, people in Dudley want to see tighter border controls.

It’s impossible for people to have confidence in the immigration system if they don’t have confidence in our border controls. 

Ministers should listen to the former Shadow Home Secretary’s plan to introduce a levy on US visitors to pay for 1,000 extra border guards and do more to strengthen checks for illegal immigrants in Calais.

Finally, I would like to see the government acknowledge that the costs and benefits of immigration are not shared across the United Kingdom.

Lots of people have moved to places like Dudley in search of work and a better life, making a contribution. But immigration can clearly put pressure on public services like housing, schools and the NHS.

The answer is to build more housing, stop cutting the NHS and ensure that schools have the teachers and staff to cope.

In parts of the country like London this is balanced by the presence of wealthy migrants, but we don’t get many millionaire American bankers, German city traders or French hedge fund managers moving to areas like the Black Country.

So I’d like to see an Immigration Bill that ensures that the benefits migration brings to some parts of Britain helps fund the extra housing, NHS staff and teachers to reduce the pressure on local infrastructure and public services in places like ours.

So while I support some measures in this Bill, we can go much further to listen to mainstream concerns about immigration and provide fair, reasonable and progressive ways of addressing them.

Let’s focus our efforts on the unscrupulous employers and organised gangs that bring people to this country illegally to exploit them.

Let’s strengthen our border force so British people can have confidence that the rules are being enforced.

And let’s ensure that the costs and benefits of immigration are shared across the country.

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