16/12/2013 12:25 GMT | Updated 15/02/2014 05:59 GMT

This Government Only Gives Promises on Immigration, and Little Else

Theresa May is all over the place on EU migration. On Sunday she said one thing, Monday something else entirely. Nick Clegg has weighed into a phoney war about it too. But the result is there is now total confusion and a massive gap between government rhetoric and reality which just undermine's public trust.

In the Sunday Times, Theresa May had briefed and hinted about her plans to cap all EU migration to 75,000. She got her headlines and ducked all the difficult questions about whether it would mean visas for everyone, including EU citizens already here, and British citizens travelling abroad. Nor did she say how and when she might bring it in.

On Monday, however, on the radio, she was rowing backwards. Instead she was only proposing changes to the transitional rules for new countries that might join the EU many years into the future. Indeed the prime minister has already suggested a cap on migration from new countries (where visas and work permits could still apply) under transitional controls.

Next it was Nick Clegg's turn. He attacked Theresa May for wanting to cap total EU migration as "undeliverable and illegal," - and got his headlines too.

But the chaos and confusion within the government is no accident. Ministers are worried about full accession of Bulgaria and Romania on 1 January but they have done little to prepare. So they are looking for distractions. Theresa May is also playing to Eurosceptic backbench Tories whose support she wants.

So the Tories want headlines saying they are increasing restrictions on EU migration, even though the reality is they are about to do the opposite.

At the same time, Nick Clegg is keen to get headlines from attacking Tories whilst still voting for their policies. So he joins Theresa May in pretending that she wants to cap EU migration altogether - even though in practice both vote for and argue for something very different entirely.

Such is the phoney war within the government - but none of this makes any difference to immigration policy right now.

Instead both Theresa May and Nick Clegg have failed to bring in the practical measures that would help manage migration in January and make sure the system is fair.

For a start we need to make sure the public have confidence that people who come are working and contributing. That's why Labour called nine months ago for restrictions on benefits for new arrivals. The government has finally agreed but won't get the measures in place before January.

Second we need to address the impact of migration on jobs and pay. Labour has a series of practical proposals to prevent exploitation of migrant labour undercutting local workers - including full enforcement of the minimum wage, cracking down on gangmasters, and stopping recruitment agencies from discriminating against UK workers. Theresa May is refusing to do any of that.

Yes, there does also need to be a longer term debate on EU reform too. We argued some time ago that the framework for free movement of labour should be revisited, as it is out of date. That means looking at transitional controls, the social security framework and also labour market protection. It means recognising the benefits of European travel and trade as well as the challenges of low skilled migration. And it needs serious analysis and debate with other European countries who are facing the same issues.

Instead of that, the government is just chasing headlines and manufacturing internal rows.

The trouble is this means there is a massive gap between rhetoric and reality.

Just like David Cameron and Theresa May's cast iron promise to cut net migration to the tens of thousands, it's now going up.

So the public get promises from this government but precious little else. Public confidence continues to decline and concern around immigration goes up. It's time for government to stop the headline chasing from Theresa May or a phoney war for the sake of Coalition politics from Nick Clegg. We need a calm debate and sensible practical policies instead.