Labour immigration speech derailed by botched pre-release
Chris Bryant's keynote speech on Labour immigration policy was derailed today, after pre-released extracts proved to be inaccurate.
The shadow immigration minister intended to lay out Labour's stall on immigration with a speech which would criticise the coalition for allowing so-called 'racist vans' on London streets while assuring voters that the party would crack down on illegal workers.
But the focus was instead on a passage blaming Tescos and Next for an employment policy which was dependent on migrants
"Take the case of Tesco, who recently decided to move their distribution centre in Kent," extracts of the speech, which were given to the Telegraph, read
"The new centre is larger and employs more people, but the staff at original site, most of them British, were told that they could only move to the new centre if they took a cut in pay. The result? A large percentage of the staff at the new centre are from [the] eastern bloc."
Tescos said 350 local people were recruited for its distribution centre in Dagenham, which is in the east London borough of Barking and Dagenham and was formerly in Essex, not Kent.
"It is wrong to accuse Tesco of this. We work incredibly hard to recruit from the local area, and have just recruited 350 local people to work in our Dagenham site," a spokesperson said.
Tory MP Robert Halfon, who represents the local area, backed Bryant's argument, saying Tescos built the new centre before telling workers at the old centre that they could continue work but only if they took a cut in wages.
But the section on a pay cut was removed from the final version of the speech, which read: "When a distribution centre was moved to a new location existing staff said they would have lost out by transferring and the result was a higher proportion of staff from A8 countries taking up the jobs.
"Tesco are clear they have tried to recruit locally. And I hope they can provide more reassurance for their existing staff."
The shadow immigration minister also angered Next, after he accused them of bringing over cheap foreign workers instead of hiring from the domestic talent pool.
"Look at Next Plc, who last year brought 500 Polish workers to work in their South Elmsall [West Yorkshire] warehouse for their summer sale and another 300 this summer," he will say.
"They were recruited in Poland and charged £50 to find them accommodation. The advantage to Next? They get to avoid agency workers regulations, which apply after a candidate has been employed for over 12 weeks, so Polish temps end up considerably cheaper than the local workforce, which includes many former Next employees."
The company said the accusation was "unlikely" and suggested Bryant was wrong in claiming the workers would not have been covered by the agency worker directive – a legal standard that guarantees the working conditions of those employed for over 12 weeks.
The passage was replaced by a new section, which read: "Next PLC recruited extra temporary staff for their South Elmsall warehouse for the summer sale – last year and this year.
"South Elmsall is in a region with 9% unemployment and 23.8% youth unemployment. Yet several hundred people were recruited directly from Poland. The recruitment agency Next used, Flame, has its web-site, www.flamejobs.pl, entirely in Polish."
During a difficult interview on the Today programme, Bryant said he "didn't know" where the mistake about Kent came from and appeared to backtrack on the thrust of his attack.
"You don't pre-release bits of speeches which are half baked," he was told by host Evan Davies.
"We're quoting stuff that's attributed to you and you're saying 'I didn't say it'."
Bryant answered: "The Telegraph conflated two pieces but it's entirely my responsibility.
"The basic point I'm trying to make… is that local workers end up being priced out of labour market and foreign migrant workers end up being exploited."
He then appeared to significantly backtrack on his criticism of the two companies.
"I fully accept that Next and Tesco indeed often try to go the extra mile," he said.
"The Times says that I call Next and Tesco unscrupulous employers… I do not."
Speaking during a gruelling questions and answer session after the speech, Bryant said: "I personally have not had conversations with either Next or Tescos. I'm not backtracking from my basic point.
"They have a duty to the community to follow up on their promises.
"There were specific instances of people who I never intended to call unscrupulous employers who have ended up using large numbers of migrant workers even when there are many young local workers unemployed."
Immigration minister Mark Harper said: "Labour still won’t say sorry for the uncontrolled immigration they allowed, they still won’t say that immigration is too high and they still won’t say that numbers need to come down.
"Labour have opposed every one of the government’s policies to bring immigration under control and refuse to say whether they will support our immigration bill.
"This badly confused speech shows that Labour haven’t changed. They still have no idea how they would bring numbers down and they have no credibility on immigration."
With the economy gradually improving, Labour is hoping to turn the 2015 general election into a cost-of-living poll and Bryant's speech generally approached immigration from that perspective.
Bryant cited House of Commons research which shows that workers have suffered a 5.5% reduction in hourly wages since 2010.
It is one of the worst drops in hourly wages in Europe. Even crisis-hit Spain has only suffered a 3.3% drop.
Labour is also keen to highlight the astonishing rise in temporary workers – up from 89,000 in 2010 to 1,650,000 in 2012, according to union figures.
That suggests 46% of the rise in total employment has been due to temporary workers and substantiates the argument that any economic improvement is built on shaky foundations.
Bryant also attacked the government for its heavy-handed initiatives on illegal immigrants over the last three weeks.
The Home Office is currently the subject of three independent inquiries.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is investigating it for the so-called 'racist vans', which were emblazoned with the phrase 'go home' – a slogan of the National Front in the 1970's.
It is also being investigated by the Information Commissioner's Office for failing to comply with freedom of information legislation.
The UK Border Agency (UKBA), which Theresa May recently brought under her control, is being investigated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) for the potential use of racial profiling in spot checks at various London Tube stations. The legal status of the spot-checks themselves may also be in question.
Bryant called the vans and spot-checks 'stunts' but stress that Labour would take more concrete moves to clamp down on the use of immigration to lower wages.
The pledge of a 'third way' between irresponsible rhetoric and firm action is similar to David Cameron's approach to immigration as opposition leader, when he promised to temper Labour's language on immigration but to be tougher on policy.