John McDonnell has issued a full-throated defence of EU immigration, as the Leave campaign ramps up anti-immigration rhetoric ahead of the upcoming referendum.
Last week, on the back of figures showing net migration had hit a record high of 330,000 people a year, key features in Vote Leave shifted their focus towards attacking the free movement of people across the continent.
Boris Johnson, previously thought of as a liberal on immigration, attacked “cynical” pledges about controlling the number of immigrants inside the EU, and said the only way to bring numbers down was to leave.
But on Saturday, the shadow Chancellor met the Leave camp on their own ground – arguing that the British had been “one of the greatest beneficiaries of free movement of people across Europe” and that immigration to Britain in particular had helped keep the country’s economy running.
Mr McDonnell spoke of the benefits of British people who wanted to work, travel, or retire abroad in other countries. But he also said:
“Inward migration often keeps our own economy afloat, filling the skills gaps and supporting our aging population to pay its way. I speak as the grandson of an Irish immigrant, and I have to tell you that it’s been the case for almost a century and a half that migrants have supported this economy and kept it afloat.
“I’m proud that it was mostly Irishmen who built most of the infrastructure on which we travelled to get here today, many of the buildings we work in and hold these meeting in.
“We have to be straight with people as well: Of course migration on any scale presents its problems of integration and pressure on public services, but all of these problems can be readily overcome.
“The vast bulk of the evidence demonstrates that migrants pay more into the economy than they take out and despite general concerns about migration all the evidence shows that on a one-to-one basis and within communities the nature of British people is to be extremely welcoming to incomers.
“Our public services, the NHS in particular, and our infrastructure and house building programmes would be in real difficulties but for the staff coming across Europe.”
In its post-Budget report in March the Office for Budget Responsibility issued calculations which showed that if the Government’s target to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands had been met, higher taxes and spending cuts would likely be required.
“If a government succeeded in reducing net inward migration from what would otherwise occur then that would be likely to create additional fiscal pressures, but it could always choose to offset those pressures through additional spending cuts or tax increases,” the watchdog said at the time.
Addressing concerns about the impact migration had on public services, Mr McDonnell said the Government should take a more active approach to helping areas that suffered from acute pressures.
“Where there are pressures in particular areas the simple and obvious solution is specific programmes of Government support to deal with them. To be frank, it’s not rocket science,” he said.
Labour’s shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, has previously suggested that additional funds should be directed to local areas with high levels of migration in order to relieve pressure on public services.
Mr McDonnell made his comments at the launch of the Another Europe Is Possible campaign. The group is campaigning to remain in the EU, but to reform it to improve its democratic accountability and social protections.
The organisers of the Leave campaign have previously been reticent to focus on immigration because they fear that dwelling on the issue could alienate the swing voters needed to win the referendum. But there has been a noticeable change of course in recent days, which insider have attributed to a persistent lead for Remain in phone polls.
This morning Tory MP Priti Patel wrote in The Sun newspaper said it was “crazy” that there were strict controls on migration for high skilled workers from countries outside the EU like India “because we have to let in anyone from Europe who feels like coming here and trying their luck at finding a job”.
Mr Johnson said on Thursday: ““What I think is cynical and unacceptable is to say that you can fulfill that pledge when manifestly you can’t because of the EU regime. The only way to sort it out is to take back control.”
The European Union in-out referendum will take place on 23 June, with the deadline to register to vote on 7 June.
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