Brexit: Labour leadership forced into ‘U-turn’ over plans to abstain on immigration bill vote

Decision to drop three-line whip branded 'shameful' and 'beyond pathetic'

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott confirms Labour will not oppose the immigration bill on its second reading in the Commons
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott confirms Labour will not oppose the immigration bill on its second reading in the Commons

Labour's leadership was forced into a ‘U-turn’ on the government's Brexit immigration bill after its decision to abstain was met with anger from party members and MPs.

Just 90 minutes after shadow home secretary Diane Abbott confirmed the party would not oppose the second reading in the Commons, it was announced that they would vote against.

Labour MP Chris Leslie said the frontbench had “thrown away the chance to defeat the government” and described the situation as an “utter shambles.”

Both he and former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna had urged the party to impose a three-line whip to oppose the bill to take a stand against Tory immigration policy. Instead the party issued a single-line whip, which is not binding on MPs.

Several other Labour MPs had already confirmed they would be voting against the bill, regardless of their leadership’s position.

The original decision to abstain had received widespread criticism, with Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey describing it as “beyond pathetic” and both Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Conservative MP Anna Soubry expressing their dismay on Twitter.

“Staggering that Labour frontbench appear to have stopped opposing today’s Immigration Bill, which ends free movement and hands Ministers total control on migration policy,” Mr Leslie tweeted. “This government bill ends free movement, fails to secure UK/EU citizens rights and delegates future immigration rules to ministers. Surely needs opposing?!”

Mr Umunna said that the bill needed opposing “to detoxify the appalling debate around immigration in this country” and argued that free movement should be reformed from within the EU.

“The bill does not secure the rights of over 1 million UK citizens to live and work in other EU countries and of over 3 million EU citizens to do likewise in the UK,” he added. “The salary threshold of £30,000 for skilled worker visas, proposed by the government, presumes those earning less are not ‘high skilled’ which is plain wrong.”

The SNP’s shadow leader of the House of Commons, Pete Wishart, said the Labour abstention was “shameful”. Ms Soubry confirmed she would be voting against the bill.

However, Labour insisted it opposed Tory policy on immigration and would be seeking amendments to the bill at committee stage.

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“Our immigration system must be ready post-Brexit, and for that reason we need an immigration bill,” a party spokesman said. “But Labour totally opposes the Tories’disgraceful hostile environment policy, their terrible treatment of EU and UK citizens, their persistent anti-migrant campaign and their shameful labelling of workers earning less than £30,000 as low-skilled.

“Labour has set out our proposed immigration system that supports the needs of our economy and treats people fairly. We will introduce a work visa for all those we need to fill skills and labour shortages across a range of professions we need to come here – based on the needs of our economy, not a false distinction between high and low skilled workers based on their salary.”

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott was repeatedly heckled in the Commons as she announced that Labour would not oppose the bill on its second reading – despite criticising Tory policy on immigration.

Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke, the Father of the House, interrupted her speech to express surprise that Ms Abbott was “denouncing it from beginning to end but is saying the official opposition is not opposing it.”

Ms Abbott replied: ”We will not be supporting this legislation tonight but we will be watching to see what comes out of committee. This is not the end of our deliberations on this bill, we will see how it is amended in committee before taking a decision on the vote for the third reading.”

When news broke that Labour were now opposing the bill, SNP MP Angus MacNeil told the Commons: “Apparently Labour have now U-turned and they are now going to oppose the bill.”

The response from the Labour frontbench: “Wait and see!”

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