UK Labour's Keir Starmer vows to curb legal migration and 'hire Brits first'

In election campaigning, the party refused to give targets but has promised to cut net migration

Labour leader Keir Starmer at the launch of the party's election campaign battle bus in Uxbridge, west London. Getty Images
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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer appeared to encroach on traditional Conservative territory as he pledged to lower legal migration and “hire Brits first”.

Mr Starmer’s migration plan revealed on Sunday includes measures to train more Britons and ban lawbreaking employers from hiring foreign workers.

Last year’s net migration figure of 685,000 was the second highest in history – a figure which Mr Starmer said was “a complete failure”.

“We’ve got to bring it down. Underpinning this number is the fact that we haven’t got the skill set that we need. So we need to fix the skills strategy,” he told The Sun on Sunday.

“But we’ve also got to come down on bad bosses,” he added, referring to employers who hire overseas workers and do not pay them the minimum wage.

A “single enforcement agency” would go into offices looking for a possible “breach in labour market rules”. Employers caught breaking these rules would face a “ban” on hiring overseas workers.

“Comply with labour market regulations, pay the right wages and you’ll be fine. But if you undercut and don’t do the right thing … we’re going to ban you from bringing people into the country,” he said.

Labour will not be giving any specific targets for migration numbers, its shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said.

Targets set in the past by previous governments had been changed, and numbers varied from year to year owing to circumstances such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

“I’m not going to set a target. We’re taking a sensible approach by … setting out the policies we will pursue so people can see the kind of difference that they will make,” she told the BBC.

The increase in work migration, which saw work visas “doubled” in recent years was a “problem.”

Labour would work towards bringing work migration down and as well as the skills shortages driving it, she said.

“We would expect to see the numbers coming down swiftly. We want to make sure that we can move quickly on some of these recruitment areas,” she said.

Illegal migration into the UK was costing the taxpayer billions of pounds, Ms Cooper said.

Labour would not proceed with the Rwanda scheme, and would focus instead on clearing the backlog of those waiting to have their claims processed.

Mr Starmer would look at other schemes that have “worked” in the past, such as the Dublin scheme.

The practice of housing asylum seekers in private hotels would take “around a year to end,” Ms Cooper added, without clarifying where those people would then be moved to.

“We will still need to look at the crisis we inherit … It will take around a year to end asylum hotel use,” she said.

“We need to start saving money straight away.”

Ms Cooper and shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson met apprentices from gas distribution company SGN on Sunday to discuss their plans to create a “golden age of lifelong learning”.

They met and chatted at the site of a gas pipe repair in a residential street in East Putney, south-west London.

Ms Cooper told reporters the party would aim to fix the “broken” migration system by enabling skills at home to fill the gap of overseas recruitment.

“Net migration has trebled over the last five years under the Conservatives – that's been particularly driven by the big increase in work migration and in work visas.

“And we've just been talking to engineering apprentices – engineering apprenticeships have halved at the same time as visas have doubled. That shows you've got a system that's broken.

Mr Starmer has previously pledged to scrap the Rwanda scheme if Labour wins power, and in May announced it would form a new border security command to tackle people smugglers.

Conservatives and right-wing politicians have hit back at the pledges.

Home Office Secretary James Cleverly accused Labour of a “soft touch” on migration that would end up taking the credit for restrictions to overseas worker and student visas made by the current government.

“Immigration has fallen 10 per cent last year, 25 per cent this year, and will fall further still as part of our biggest ever cut to migration. Our changes stop overseas workers undercutting British talent, putting an end to low-skilled mass migration,” he wrote on X.

“At the time, Yvette [Cooper] called our decisions 'chaos'. Now Labour want to take the credit? Meanwhile, the reality of Labour’s soft touch approach will mean 250,000 more people a year,” he added.

Richard Tice, leader of the right-wing party Reform, accused Mr Starmer of “trying to copy” its migration policy unveiled a few days earlier, which would impose an immigration tax on business.

“No one believes Keir Starmer saying he will cut on immigration as he tries to copy Reform policy,” he wrote on X.

Updated: June 02, 2024, 4:26 PM