“Our cars are German, our vodka is Russian, our pizza is Italian, our democracy is Greek, our coffee is Brazilian, our films are American, our tea is Tamil, our shirts are Indian, our oil is Saudi Arabian, our electronics are Chinese, our numbers are Arabic and our letters are Latin. So, for goodness sake, let’s keep all those foreigners out!” Professor Malcolm McDonald
This week I want to return to discussing major themes of the forthcoming General Election and I am going to try to deal with the thorny subject of immigration. In their excellent book ‘The Blunders of our Governments[i]’
Anthony King and Ivor Crewe refer to immigration in a Postscript to the book which deals with the many apparent blunders committed by the Coalition Government:
“No party or government can avoid the issue of immigration. It ranks high on millions of British voters’ personal agendas, and net migration into the UK in recent decades has reached record levels. The Conservative manifesto for the 2010 election promised that a Tory government would ‘take steps to take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands.’ – a pledge echoed somewhat more vaguely in the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition programme for government. After the election, the new prime minister announced that the government’s target was to reduce net migration to below 100,000 by 2015.”
In the election campaign David Cameron had said ‘no ifs, no buts. If we don’t do it, vote us out.’ Well, they won’t have done it. Net migration for the latest twelve month period available climbed to 260,000, 16,000 higher than when the coalition took power in 2010. There are various problems with a target to control net migration i.e. the total number of immigrants less the total number of emigrants. Firstly, we have signed up to the principle of free movement of people within the European Union, that is that citizens of any member state are free to move to any other member state and look for work. This, of course, works both ways. While large numbers of people come to the United Kingdom from other EU member states many British citizens chose to move to other parts of Europe. It may be that more of these are going in their retirement to the sunnier states in the south, particularly Spain, but it is not really relevant to a commitment about absolute numbers, even if there is a political overtone to it.
Secondly, we clearly cannot restrict the number of people who choose to leave, either British subjects who want to go elsewhere in the world or EU citizens who came here for work and now want to return to their home countries. So the variables in the calculation are such that the government cannot really put together a coherent policy to achieve its stated aim. In fact its policy has been completely incoherent.
Nearly half of all immigrants are either EU nationals, legally entitled to live and work in the UK, or else returning British citizens. A smaller but still substantial proportion comprises family members who are entitled to join immigrants already in the UK. Then there are those fleeing from war or repression who seek asylum here. Under international law and by the standards of common humanity we have both a legal and a moral duty to take in our share. That means that considerably less than half of all inward migration can be tackled by means of stricter restrictions.
The Home Office, responsible for immigration, had only two realistic options: to impose strict limitations on the number of people coming from outside the UK to work in Britain and to impose even stricter limitations on the greater numbers seeking to come to the UK to study. It did both. In 2011 ministers limited the numbers coming from non-EU countries to about 22,000. Visas would only be granted to those whose skills or resources made it likely that they would make a positive contribution to the British economy. Ministers also clamped down on non-EU students coming to Britain by toughening up visa requirements and requiring their universities and colleges to monitor their attendance and progress more closely.
Tertiary education for foreign students has been a very successful export business for the UK. Students like to come here to learn or improve their English. They are attracted by the high reputation of many of our universities as well as the rich cultural life. The new rules have badly damaged this both directly and indirectly. Some students have not been able to come here while others have been deterred as they think they will not be welcome. At the University of Bedfordshire, of which I was a Governor for six years, where a third of students are from other countries, the numbers coming from India have halved in recent years.
It seems clear that the government has not only failed to reduce inward migration but it has also caused considerable collateral damage. Businesses of all sizes have found it difficult to recruit the skilled staff they need and cannot find among UK nationals, owing to the deficiencies in our education system. In 2012 The Economist
described the coalition’s immigration controls as “the Tories’ barmiest policy” and urged the government to speed up and simplify the whole visa system and to make it easier for overseas students to study – and, if they needed to, work while they studied – at Britain’s leading universities. The Economist
“As emerging countries grow, the enthusiasm of young talented foreigners to get an education at a British university or to sell their wares to Britain’s relatively prosperous consumers is likely to diminish. For now, though the country’s global popularity gives it a huge advantage, which the government is squandering. The world is a competitive place. Britain is trying to run with its shoelaces tied together.”[ii]
But while this may be the case many Britons feel differently. They may not appreciate the value of overseas students coming here but instead are concerned about large numbers of immigrants coming here both from Europe and elsewhere and apparently taking our jobs or even worse living off our welfare system. The sheer scale of immigration in recent years, particularly under the last Labour government, has changed the nature of some towns and cities. To even raise such issues invites accusations of racism and for too long the subject has not been properly debated. Gordon Brown fell into this trap during the last General Election campaign when he was recorded calling a lady in the North a ‘bigoted woman’ when she had only raised the legitimate concerns that many people felt and still feel.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has exploited these uncertainties with both skill and panache. Their overall policies on a range of issues are a mess but on the question of the European Union they are crystal clear. Only by leaving it can Britain get control over immigration. Quite what the position of all these British citizens who’ve chosen to go to the Mediterranean for their retirement would be then is not so clear.
On the question of benefits the position is more obscure. Studies have been published which seem to show that the numbers claiming benefits are not large. However, this is not true if we factor in Gordon Brown’s absurd tax credits. A Polish worker coming here can earn several times what he can earn in Poland for the same job when tax credits are included. Overall our benefits do seem more generous and many of those who leave Africa or Asia to cross the whole of Europe to seek to get into the UK do so because they have heard of our generous welfare system.
Responding to this in a recent speech David Cameron pledged to create the “toughest” welfare system for migrants in Europe. EU nationals would be denied access to social housing and all “in-work” benefits, such as tax credits, until they had paid taxes in Britain for four years. Migrants who failed to find work for six months would face deportation. But he failed to mention immigration quotas or an “emergency brake” on migrant numbers. Even with such changes, there still seem to be anomalies around the EU.
For a UK national to live in Spain and comply with its laws he must first register in person at the oficina de extranjeros
in his province of residence or at a designated police station. He must have sufficient resources, so as not to become a burden on Spain’s social assistance system during his period of residence. He must present proof of these resources, whether from regular income or from ownership of assets. Lastly, he must supply proof of private or public healthcare insurance. If Spain can insist on this for a citizen of the European Union, why can’t Britain?
The Swiss had one of their many referenda on the subject recently. They decisively rejected a proposal to cut net immigration to no more than 0.2% of the population. The 26 cantons all rejected the proposal with 74% voting No. Supporters of the measure argued that it would have reduced pressure on the country’s resources. Opponents said it would have been bad for the economy. Around a quarter of Switzerland’s eight million people are foreigners. The measure would have required the government to reduce net migration from about 80,000 to 16,000 people per year. If the measure had passed it is difficult to see how it could be enforced. All the same issues that I discussed above would come into play. The Swiss are not members of the EU but are bound by many of the same principles for the free movement of goods, services and people.[iii]
It would seem that the Swiss recognised the value of immigrants. But let’s look at those numbers again. According to the Office for National Statistics[iv]
, the mid-2013 estimate for the population of the UK was 64.1 million. But its estimate of net migration to June 2014 was 260,000. Births usually exceed deaths by 200,000 or so each year. So that has increased the population to 64.56 million. If we were to apply the Swiss target of 0.2% that would give us net migration of 129,120, about half what it actually is. Were those seeking the reform being so unreasonable in their aims, even if the methods to achieve it are difficult?
The British are tolerant people, on the whole. As Robert Tombs shows in his new book, The English and Their History[v]
Englishmen and women have embraced pluralism and immigration for at least 1,300 years, and he argues that they should not give it up as it is a characteristic strength. When the Huguenots needed to escape from repression and worse by the French Catholics, it was England that took them in. When the Jews fled the pogroms of nineteenth century Russia, many of them came to Britain. When Idi Amin expelled 50,000 Ugandan Asians, they came to Britain. All of these assimilated well and added hugely to not only the richness of the economy but also the richness of the culture.
Our dynamic economy relies on migrant labour. Much of the recent growth in the economy has come through immigration. While George Osborne boasts that we have the fastest growing economy in the OECD, our GDP per capita has not grown so fast. In the next five months we will hear a lot of hot air about immigration from all the political parties. Labour have acknowledged that they relaxed the controls too much and severely underestimated the numbers who would come here from Eastern Europe once those controls were lifted. Conservatives are trying to pretend that a pledge was just an aim. The Liberal Democrats, having signed up to the same policy, are now trying to distance themselves from it, not a credible position. UKIP are driving increasingly large wedges through all three of the so-called main parties. I hope the hot air does not overheat. In the long run diversity is good for all of us. It brings innovation and richness of culture. But if it is uncontrolled, even reasonable, tolerant people start to question whether our infrastructure can stand it.