Shadow immigration minister Sir Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, in London, visited Oldham on Friday 27th of May as part of his UK-wide tour to speak to voters about immigration at a public meeting held at University Campus Oldham.
The Labour Party and I have been pushing hard for this dialogue with local people and that is why I arranged for Sir Keir to attend this public meeting. It was great to hear so many frank conversations taking place and these discussions were extremely useful as they will help Labour form its immigration policy.
Many people in the room expressed concerns about integration and rights of asylum seekers, as well as cuts to English language courses and regulating employers who are taking advantage of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers living in Oldham shared their stories, explaining how they have been waiting anywhere from two years to 14 years, for the Home Office to make a decision on their case.
Sir Keir said “I’m so encouraged to see so many people to a public meeting on a Friday afternoon, and being prepared to express their views around the table. There’s a very honest and engaged community in Oldham, many of whom have strong views one way or another.
“We have got to have a real conversation about immigration. We’re going to have to be blunt, frank and open. Nothing is off limits. We’re not coming to sell a policy, we’re coming to listen before we look again at this policy.”
Studies have shown that there are concerns about immigration, particularly in those communities with housing pressures and where other public services are in crisis such as the NHS and, increasingly, education. But immigration was also raised as an issue in communities where there is no diversity. For me, this says more about the daily pressures people are facing and how politicians on the centre left and centre right have failed to have any meaningful debate about immigration until recent months. Prior to that it was discussed only under duress from certain political parties, always inflammatory and always negative. And with the EU referendum around the corner, immigration is once again flagged up on the doors and in the polls as a key issue.
I’m proud that in the wake of the Second World War, the UK helped to draft and was one of the first signatories to the UN Convention for Refugees so that anyone, anywhere could claim refuge from persecution. I believe most people feel that way too. But for some, superimposed on top of this, are feelings of fear about jobs, public services but also about difference. What about my job? Will employers want to pay me less, or even replace me? What about my kids’ education? Will there be enough school places? Where will they live? What about housing supply? Will it push rents and housing prices up? Will they be good neighbours?
And many of these questions relate to economic migrants from the EU as well. Politicians must respond to these issues by engaging with communities to understand the local impacts of migration. We must make sure that communities with migrant populations are appropriately resourced and supported so that pressure on services are mitigated, migrant and indigenous communities get to know each other, and employers are prohibited from undercutting local wages by recruiting solely from the EU.
But we must also understand the huge role that migrants have and continue to play in our economy, for example, with approximately 1 in 4 doctors in the NHS coming from abroad and, according to the British Medical Association, making ‘a valuable and important contribution to the NHS’. Although there are year on year variations it’s estimated that all migration contributes about 1% GDP to the economy, with EU migrants contributing the most.
Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham was able to join shortly before the meeting came to an end and said “people want an honest debate about immigration. It’s a real concern people have. We need to have a balanced debate, without it being done in a sensationalist way.”
You can read my piece “How to make a decision on the EU referendum” here.