IN the final days of the EU referendum campaign, the issue of immigration will be high on the agenda of many voters.
Let me be clear from the start: it’s fine to be concerned about immigration – many people are.
This doesn’t mean to say they are racist or xenophobic – they are simply concerned about pressures on GP surgeries or schools, or how once familiar town centres are changing, or whether they’ll be able to compete with migrant workers to get a job.
Most people recognise that there are positive sides of migration too. Whether it is providing the skilled workers we need for our economy, or the amazing doctors and nurses from abroad who help run our health service, the UK has reaped the benefits from immigration.
But I strongly believe that concerns about immigration – as legitimate as they are – are not a reason to vote for Brexit. This is why:
First, because leaving the EU won’t solve the problem. Over half of all migrants to Britain come from outside the EU, and the result of this referendum will do nothing to bring these numbers down.
In fact, the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign have been promising that Brexit will allow Government to actually increase the amount of immigration from outside the EU, opening up a whole new tier of immigration to fill short-term vacancies.
The Leave campaign has also already agreed that all EU migrants who are here legally should be able to stay in Britain even if we vote out.
That’s the right thing to do – but it’s important that voters are not under any false illusion that a vote to leave would reduce the number of European migrants currently in Britain.
In addition, the Leave camp have called for an Australian-style points-based system for migrants, and yet Australia has twice as many migrants per person as we do.
What’s more, the whole purpose of the Aussie system is to give businesses more control over who they bring into the country – which tends to be the cheapest workers – forcing down wages and doing absolutely nothing to address concerns about insecure employment.
And most important of all, voters need to know that the free movement of EU citizens to Britain would not automatically stop if we left.
Countries that remain part of the EU’s single market, such as Norway – a model often used by the “out” campaign – have a higher rate of immigration from EU countries than the UK because free movement is a mandatory part of having unfettered access to the single market.
The other option is, of course, to leave the single market altogether, which all experts agree would be catastrophic for businesses and jobs in our region.
Second, we can deal with migration while remaining in the EU.
It is right and fair that people who come to Britain pay something into the welfare system before they can take something out.
That’s why Labour has long pushed for an end to the payment of benefits to people who don’t live permanently in this country, and for a major extension of the time EU migrants have to wait before being able to claim benefits – a commitment now secured by the Prime Minister as part of the renegotiation deal.
It’s also time to protect the going rate for skilled workers, and to stop the exploitation of cheap migrant labour.
We can do all of this while remaining within the EU.
We can also do more to help communities facing the greatest pressures.
We know that EU migrants who arrived in the UK since 2001 contributed £20 billion more to our economy than they’ve taken out in benefits. But this money shouldn’t just disappear into the Treasury coffers.
We need a clear formula to ensure that the taxes that migrants contribute go quickly to the areas where they are living, to make sure that local health services and schools get the funding they need when the population changes.
These practical changes will help ensure that people come to our country for the right reasons.
They will know that when they work hard, speak English and play by the rules, they will find that Britain is the sort of country that welcomes them. And we will know that the system is fair, under control and works for the British people.
And finally – and perhaps most importantly – the overall benefits of EU membership are huge.
While the leave camp are trying to distract voters, their economic case has been completely demolished by everyone from the President of the United States to small and medium businesses in Yorkshire.
On this there is no doubt, leaving the EU would hurt Yorkshire businesses and hit our own pockets.
Please don’t fall for the spin prior to June 23 that the only way to deal with concerns about immigration is by voting to leave – that simply is not the case.
Immigration is a legitimate concern, but it’s not a good reason to leave the EU.
I very rarely agree with the Prime Minister but on this he’s right: we are stronger, safer and better off in.
Jo Cox is the Labour MP for Batley and Spen.