The Yvette Cooper speech showed Labour is not going to compete with the Tories to show who is toughest on immigration

Migration stories continue with Yvette Cooper providing more detail on Labour’s policy and a statistical correction from the Office for National Statistics, reports Jill Rutter.

Migration stories continue with Yvette Cooper providing more detail on Labour’s policy and a statistical correction from the Office for National Statistics, reports Jill Rutter

The Cooper speech showed that Labour is not going to compete with the Tories to show who is toughest on immigration. After last summer’s disastrous performance from the then shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant, today’s speech came as a relief.

Cooper showed she wanted a less toxic debate on immigration and hinted at a number of sensible policy proposals. The language she chose to use was important: she was clear about the benefits of migration and the UK’s duties to uphold the rights of refugees. There would be no ‘Go Home’ vans under Labour.

The speech was characterised by few apologies for getting it wrong in 2004 and not introducing transitional labour market controls on EU citizens from eastern and central Europe.

Importantly, Cooper indicated that Labour would abandon the overall net migration target and treat different types of migrants differently. Much has been written about the arbitrary nature of this target – net migration increases if few UK national emigration, for example. So after much pressure from a wide range of interest groups it is good news to hear that this unworkable policy will be abandoned.

Labour announced it would retain an overall cap on the numbers of skilled workers coming in from outside the EU. But refugees and university students would be removed from the net migration target, stating that the inclusion of the former gave the Home Office a terrible incentive to turn away desperate people.

There was no mention of family migration in the speech and whether a Labour government would abandon the £18,600 annual minimum income threshold (to be maintained over 12 months) for a person who wants to bring a spouse to the UK.

The speech reiterated existing commitments to improve the enforcement of the National Minimum Wage and extend the remit of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority to sectors such as social care and construction. (At present the regulatory powers of this organisation only cover agriculture, shellfish collection and food processing).

There were other commitments to curtail the operation of recruitment agencies who just advertise to one national group, as well as a stated intention to strengthen border controls and curtail undocumented migration.

“We will draw up a plan to bring in proper controls to count people in and out, and deal with the hundreds of thousands of people overstaying their visas in Britain. And we need stronger controls at the ports where the most problems arise.”

In this respect, the speech was disappointing and surprisingly vague for this stage of the electoral cycle. All modern governments try to implement stronger border control and to reduce undocumented migration – it is stating an obvious.

Many would have liked to hear how a Labour government planned to deal with the UK Border agency chaos that has led to up to 200,000 asylum applications being ‘archived’ or the failure of removals of undocumented migrants. In 2006 then home secretary John Reid declared the UK Border Agency ‘not fit for purpose’. Since then it has lurched from crisis to crisis, under Labour and under the coalition.

Hearing how a Labour government proposes to improve this failing body is important if the public is to trust Labour on immigration.

Within hours of the speech, its proposals were overshadowed by a surprise release from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) declaring that in the period 2001 – 2011 it had under-estimated the net flow of migrants into the UK by 346,000. The revised net inflow over this ten year now stands at 2,528,000 people.

This miscalculation has been partly caused by the inadequate nature of the International Passenger Survey, which is the main means by which net migration is calculated. Administered at the port of entry, it effectively comprises two separate surveys: one about tourism and one about migration intentions. The migration component has a sample size of 2,000 UK arrivals and 2,000 departures, which many statisticians argue is too small to draw reliable conclusions about net migration.

Moreover, the International Passenger Survey has a very complicated weight system to take account for factors such as early morning and late evening flights from particular countries – times of the day when research staff are not at airports to interview passengers. The ONS changes its weightings system from time to time, hence the need to revise its figures.

Today’s ONS debacle is an argument in favour of scrapping the net migration target. It is a bad policy supported by inaccurate and contested statistical evidence.

But the ONS miscalculation also further reduces public trust in governments and official statistics on immigration. Restoring public trust in the immigration system is crucial for Labour, with polling data suggesting that people still have more confidence in the Tories to deliver on immigration. Today’s speech by Yvette Cooper did little to show how this might be restored.

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