Sir Keir Starmer has warned that UK industry must be weaned off “immigration dependency” and “cheap labour” in order to achieve economic growth.
Addressing business leaders at the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) annual conference, the Labour Party leader said businesses need to “invest more in training up workers who are already here” and warned bosses that the days “when low pay and cheap labour are a part of the British way on growth” must come to an end.
He also said he would be “pragmatic” when it comes to the shortages felt by companies and would focus on improving the current points-based immigration system, which was brought in after Brexit, to ensure the UK could receive skilled foreign workers.
In response to his comments, the Holborn and St Pancras MP was asked if he wanted to bring down immigration, but Starmer said he would not commit to “arbitrary” numbers. Speaking to those gathered in Birmingham, he said: “If one of the big drivers [of immigration] is skills failure, then I think we need to address the skills issue rather than just talk about arbitrary numbers.
“That means if we get this right then immigration will go down in some of those areas that are overly reliant on immigration, but equally we’re not going to hold businesses back if there’s innovation, technologies, where we do need talent from abroad.”
Starmer’s keynote speech comes one day after CBI’s director-general Tony Danker called for immigration to be used to solve worker shortages in the UK. He told the government that it must be “practical on the issue”, commenting: “It’s time to be honest - we don’t have the people we need, nor do we have the productivity.”
Brexit stopped many workers from Europe being able to easily fill jobs in the UK which has resulted in some industries, particularly hospitality and health and social care, struggling to find staff.
But on the same day (21 November), Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisted to the CBI that the UK has “one of the world’s most attractive visa regimes for entrepreneurs and highly-skilled people” in the world. The most pressing issue in terms of migration, he said, is “tackling illegal migration”.
The Conservative Party leader also spoke positively of the economic impacts of Brexit - citing “proper control of borders” and the freedom to make trade deals with the “world’s fastest growing economies” as key benefits - and took the opportunity to slam rumours that the UK government was considering a Swiss-style relationship with the EU.
In his speech, Starmer also outlined Labour’s three priorities for government. These were:
- economic stability
- higher skills
- green growth
A notion which did not explicity make this list - but which the Labour MP frequently returned to - was the idea that “Britain’s low-pay model has to go” as it “does not serve working people” and is not “compatible with grassroots growth”.
He explained: “When we look at our economy as a whole, it can seem like we’re more comfortable hiring people to work in low-paid, insecure, sometimes exploitative contracts than we are investing in the new technology that delivers for workers, productivity and our country.”
Following on from Sunak’s comments yesterday (21 November), and the rumours of changes to the deal secured by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Starmer also clarified Labour’s stance on Brexit - something which has been frequently contested. The party’s leader said that there would be no going back to the EU and no return to freedom of movement, but promised a thorough review of the UK’s immigration system.
Being careful not to take too much of a hardline stance, Starmer also said Labour will always protect the rights of migrant workers, adding: “Migration is part of our national story – always has been, always will be. And Labour will never diminish the contribution it makes to the economy, to public services, to your businesses and our communities.”