Immigration: An open and shut case

Monday, 8 July, 2013

SPEECH TO THE CENTRE FOR POLICY STUDIES, LONDON BY THE RT HON DR LIAM FOX MP ON MONDAY 8TH JULY 2013

 

IMMIGRATION:  AN OPEN & SHUT CASE

 

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In many ways, immigration is a window: a window through which we see our relationship with the peoples of the rest of the world and, conversely, how they see their relationship with us.

 

In a rapidly changing world, where globalisation has brought greater interdependence and new economic opportunities that have been matched by greater international mobility, how do we set the parameters of our immigration policy to ensure that our view is clear and wide-ranging?

 

It is a view that has changed considerably over time, and how we have managed the relationship in the past between those already in our country and those seeking to join us, is something that is worth reflecting upon at the outset.

 

Historical Context

 

The United Kingdom is both a land of immigration and integration. These forces have made us who and what we are today. Very few of us could claim to be descended exclusively from indigenous British stock, not least because historically there is really no such thing. What we describe at any one point in time as our national identity is something that, in fact, has altered over the centuries with our national characteristics moulding and merging with the influences that have come to our shores from overseas.

 

From the Norman Conquest onwards, this has been a country that has been a successful; if not always willing, partner in assimilating a wide range of cultures and interests, and we in our turn have shaped the world around us.  Within our own borders, the movement of English, Scots, Welsh and Irish has meant that we are all simultaneously able to identify with different national characteristics while sharing a forged sense of Britishness.

 

Of course, the scale of immigration has varied enormously over time.  During the periods of so called “mass migration” in the post-war years - a process which some regarded at the time almost as an existential threat - the numbers related to tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands coming to our country today.

 

Indeed, between 1964 and 1980, there were more people leaving the UK than there were arriving and, even in the 1960s, when warnings of the cultural challenges associated with mass migration were first voiced, we were dealing with significantly fewer than half the arrivals we are seeing today. The UK has been, and still is, one of the most open and generous countries in Europe, if not the world. Yet in recent times, the tolerance of the British people has been stretched more than ever before.

 

I would like to begin, therefore, by examining just why, such an open minded nation with such a strong record of integration, should now place the issue of immigration at the top of the list of public concerns.

 

Labour’s Record

 

I recently described the wilful extension of the welfare state into the affluent middle class as the greatest crime of Labour’s time in office.  If that is so, and I still believe it to be true, then their policy on immigration ran it a close second.

 

Labour shamefully mismanaged our borders not only out of incompetence but quite deliberately.  As Hazel Blears admitted, they went too far making immigration a social policy designed to push New Labour multiculturalism and in the process they alienated swathes of white working-class people.  They were indulging in social engineering for the sake of their own electoral ambitions and slamming those who disagreed with them as ill educated or racist.

 

The abolition of the Primary Purpose rule, which required foreign nationals married to British citizens to prove that the main purpose of their marriage was not to achieve British citizenship (and thereby residency rights), was the first step to the opening of our borders.  Approximately one new immigrant arrived in this country for every minute that Labour were in power thereafter.

 

By contrast, the Conservative Party manifesto at the last election promised to reduce net migration and a great deal of progress has been made, with numbers falling by a third from a quarter of a million in the final year of the Labour Government to 160,000 now.  We have clamped down on the student visa racket, tightened up our border controls and put in place transitional arrangements as new countries enter the EU.  Theresa May and Mark Harper, two of the Government’s most competent ministers, have pushed that forwards and David Cameron has committed to drive immigration down further until we return to a more sustainable flow in the tens – not hundreds - of thousands. 

 

So I am not here to criticise what has been done in the last three years but to make the case for how we could and should go further - when freed from the constraints of coalition - and make our immigration policy a centre piece of this country’s bid for success in an ever more competitive world.

 

Framing the Debate

 

It is necessary not just for intellectual consistency but for social responsibility to have the immigration debate dealt with on an entirely higher plane than we’ve seen in recent times.  It has always been convenient for those on either end of the political spectrum to use immigration as a political football – either for the left to portray any debate as racist or for those on the far right to portray anyone coming to our country as a burden or a threat. 

 

For some it is a debate that we would be best to just leave alone completely but as I travel around the country, it is what voters are concerned about – and maybe we, the political class, should talk about what they want, not what we want.  It is, after all, their politics not ours.

 

Perhaps (and I have an optimistic feel on a beautiful sunny day like this) with Labour now willing to admit it’s mistakes we can create a new consensus.  This is the time to have a really good look at who we need to come here to help our country generate wealth and prosperity, and to move away from focussing on the headline figures of net migration.

 

Indeed, I would caution briefly about our continued use of net migration as a measure of the immigration problem.

 

In 2011, for example, net migration fell significantly from 252,000 to 215,000 – a reduction of about 15%.  However, the number of people coming to this country only fell by 25,000 whilst the number of people leaving increased by 12,000.  For most people, it is the actual number coming in that matters, not the net number.  When we say net immigration fell by 37,000, it still means that in 2011, 566,000 people came in.  I will return to the theme of keeping our workforce in balance later in the speech but I will say now that when we are looking at the cultural and social problems associated with immigration we need to look exclusively at the number of people arriving for it is that volume that has such a pronounced impact on the communities in which such large numbers are settling. 

 

Put another way – without the statistics - the people of Boston in Lincolnshire see only the hundreds of new arrivals competing with them for access to a doctor, a school place or social housing.  It does not dampen their frustration in the slightest when they hear that a few dozen families in the East Midlands have moved away from the country during the same period.  In fact, if amongst those families was a nurse, a couple of teachers and some of the area’s successful businesspeople; they’d probably think that those departures exacerbated the immigration issue rather than helped it.

 

Social & Cultural Challenges

 

How do we overcome the cultural and social problems that have made immigration an issue in many of our towns and villages?  I believe there are two prerequisites.  The first is that there is a willingness amongst the host population to integrate those coming into the country.  The second is that the incoming population has to be willing to integrate into the legal and cultural systems of the hosts.  Failure to achieve these is likely to result in hostility to immigrant groups with an increased likelihood of ghettoisation. 

 

There has also been a tendency, quite rightly and understandably, to celebrate diversity in our population.  But if we are only to celebrate diversity and fail to celebrate commonality, then we are likely to achieve not diversity but fragmentation. 

 

The commonality that we must champion is not much.  It is a subscription to the laws and values of this country and a willingness to accept and respect our social norms.  It is an enthusiasm to integrate into our communities; to speak our language; to celebrate our country’s great heritage and embrace the boundless opportunities that are in our future.

 

I think it is also a basic matter of fairness and respect for those who live here already.  I believe our society has been enriched by the many cultural influences that have arrived in this country throughout our history but whilst we are celebrating those, let’s not forget to be equally, if not perhaps more, passionate about our celebration of Britain and its historic achievements.

 

What’s more, when we do really celebrate our shared identity as Britons, as we were doing this time last year with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics (and I do, daresay, even yesterday at Wimbledon), we do it brilliantly and people in all parts of the country and of all backgrounds and beliefs, wave the Union Jack with great pride.  We’ve been a bit shy about saying to those who come here that we’d like them to consider themselves as British and yet, when we have given immigrant communities the opportunity to share in times of great national celebration; they have shown plenty of appetite for doing so.

 

Community cohesion is not, however, just a question of allegiance to the flag and acceptance of new cultures. 

 

So many of the problems in communities where integration has not happened have been caused by a failure to pave the way for these arrivals with new classrooms, doctors surgeries and other public infrastructure.  The result is that – rightly or wrongly – local people have come to blame their failure to win a place for their child in the school of their choice on the new immigrant family who have moved in down the road.  People get angry about what they perceive to be happening in their communities and it is the responsibility of the Government to make sure that those areas where immigration has been most acute are suitably upgraded in terms of public infrastructure.

 

The politics of Ageing

 

However, we need to find a way to neutralise the social and cultural tensions because the key argument around immigration is really an economic one.

 

The fact is that the population of the UK is continuing to age.  By 2051, the proportion of 65 year olds is projected to increase from 16% to 24%.  The age dependency ratio – the number of pensioners per 1,000 people of working age – will increase from 300 - which has been a stable average since the 1970s - to almost 500 over that timeframe.

 

We are not, of course, alone.

 

With an age dependency rate of 370, Japan is already dealing with similar issues.  To this end, it has used technological improvements to increase the efficiency of labourers, and furthermore, the Government is trying to re-mobilise more of its retired and female population.  Although these measures will have helped, they are not enough on their own.  The UN has, therefore, recommended that Japan either raises the retirement age to 77 or allows an additional 40 million immigrants over the next 40 years in order to keep the ratios stable.  That would represent an increase in the population which is about a third of the country’s current size.

 

Will we, in Britain, face a similar problem to the Japanese?  Currently for every three people paying National Insurance in Britain, there is one person receiving a pension.  In the next 40 years, however, this will change to two workers for every one pensioner.  We have a problem that is based on a structural imbalance which requires a sustainable solution.

 

Most likely, we will have to take similar actions to Japan if we are to meet this challenge; increasing efficiency and productivity, getting more of the working age population into work and increasing retirement ages too.  However, we must accept that we will also have to encourage economically beneficial labour into the country.  If we cannot bring ourselves to do that, then the alternative is the managed decline of Britain – not an option we should be willing to contemplate.

 

Understanding Our Future

 

If we are to remain at the economic top table, we must have a clear vision for where Britain’s economy is heading and what skills we will need to deliver a prosperous future.  Fanciful nostalgia for industries and working practises that have long been in decline won’t help; instead we need to be objective and clear about which industries and services are growing and which are likely to emerge over the next twenty years.

 

Our first priority in rebalancing the workforce must, of course, be an education and training system that creates the sorts of skills that will meet the needs of Britain’s future.  Where re-skilling is achievable we should promote it keenly so that those who are out of work but aspire for a new job and a better future, are given the opportunity to make those dreams a reality.  Part of that contract is controlling our borders.  However, where we identify skills or experience that are in short supply and it is unrealistic to generate that from within our existing workforce, we should be competing with other countries to attract the very brightest and best to come here.

 

Let me be clear about what I am saying this morning – we need to move away from an immigration debate that is purely about numbers, and start to talk about which individuals and skills we will need in the future.  We need to stop talking about how many people are coming into Britain and start talking about which people are coming into Britain. Numbers matter because they will affect the likelihood of assimilation and put pressure on public services but they are, on their own, an inadequate measure of a successful immigration policy.

 

The beginning of the analysis we require already exists.  In 2010, The UK Commission for Employment and Skills produced a report entitled “Working Futures 2010-2020”, which looked at future projected worker needs in the UK.  According to the report, it is expected that the British economy will generate around 1.25 million more jobs in the decade leading up to 2020 but it is interesting to see where they will come and where they will not come.  The groups that are expected to show the most significant increase in employment during this time period are the higher level occupations; managers, directors and senior officials - around 544,000 more or a 18% increase, professional occupations – around 869,000 more or a 15% increase, and associate professional and technical occupations – around a 14% increase.  On the other side, there are declining employment levels projected for administrative and secretarial occupations, skilled trade occupations and process plant and machine operatives. 

 

The Prime Minister talks about the global race that we’re in and he is absolutely right to do so.  Our companies are not just competing globally for contracts or investment; they are also competing for the very best people.  The immigration policy that we design for this country must protect the opportunities of those who are already here but so it must also make sure that for the very best - the people with the talent to make British companies into world beaters - the doors are open and they are made to feel welcome.

 

There are many examples of countries that are exercising such a pragmatic approach to who crosses their borders and there is plenty we can learn from them.  Australia seeks engineers and those with experience in the mining industry as it foresees huge expansion in those areas.  Canada wants to build human capital within an ageing workforce by making provisions that attract young potential migrants who have work experience, higher education and English or French language skills.  Whilst the United States has long operated a Green Card system with quotas that advantage immigrants with a profession or experience in business, the arts, sport or academia that benefits American society and their economy.

 

Regional Variance

 

There will, of course, be important regional variations in the demand for skills and labour.  Here in London, the future of the City as the world’s pre-eminent financial centre will, at least partly, depend on the ability to attract the greatest talent from around the financial world.  Our capital is a global city with a high concentration of businesses whose activities are international and they rely on a high turnover of human capital.  We must be able to facilitate that.

 

But let’s be very frank, if we are going to ensure that those with the necessary skills for the high end of our economy are more able to come to the United Kingdom, then the corollary will be that the numbers of those who come here, as part of our social or cultural migration will need to be curtailed.  What I am proposing is in fact an open and shut policy: more open to those who have the skills that we will need to maintain our prosperity and place in the world and more closed to those who, for whatever reason, would end up placing a burden on our welfare system and national infrastructure.

 

European Union

 

Of course, we cannot separate the issue of immigration from the issue of the European Union.

 

When people are asked what power they most want returned from Brussels, they are clear – they want the ability to control who crosses our borders.  As we reform our welfare system and make it less of a soft touch and simultaneously encourage those unemployed in Britain to return to the workplace, then some of the factors which have been a magnet for cheap overseas labour will be diminished.  But it must be a fundamental right of any state to determine who comes into their country and who does not.  It is a message that is increasingly heard across the European continent if you listen to people of the European continent and not the Governments of the European continent.  If it is not listened to and understood, it could have dangerous and destabilising consequences.

 

Yet, the response of the political classes in Brussels is to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye.  So, my message to the commission and their cronies is this:  You are the ones who are fanning the flames of frustration in Europe and paving the way for extremism.  You are responsible for igniting the continent’s dormant nationalisms.  Your disregard for history and identity, and your obsession with ever closer union can lead to the ultimate destruction of the whole EU architecture.  If you break it is because you will not bend.  When, you – Mr Commissioner - are sitting with your fat, tax payer funded pensions, watching the edifice crumble, remember that you are the guilty men.

 

Conclusion

 

I fear that those of us who live in the Westminster Village have, for too long, just wanted to talk about the headline numbers in the immigration debate.  The Conservative led coalition has kept its word and seen considerable success in reversing Labour’s cynical policy of opening our borders to anyone, and it is encouraging to see net migration coming down so quickly.  However, immigration is a much bigger issue than simply how many people are coming here.

 

We need to be clear about what skills and what number of people we need in this country in order to equip our businesses with the right workforce and to make sure that our demographic remains in balance. 

 

We must acknowledge that many communities in this country have struggled to absorb the new arrivals.  Some of that is because of an unwillingness to integrate but it is also because public services did not grow quickly enough to keep pace with the demands of a rapidly growing population particularly in several of our regions.  The resentment that people feel is understandable and we must be willing to address their concerns.

 

As we are doing with Europe, welfare reform and re-building our economy; I believe we can also, as a Conservative Party, go into the next General Election with an immigration policy that really resonates with hard working people across this country.  Whilst some of our opponents will seek to simplify the problem and scaremonger; I think we can win an argument that says we need immigration for our economy to grow but that that immigration must be in the interests of this country.

 

Immigration is not just about how many people we’re letting in.  It’s about who we are letting in and what they can do to help us get ahead in the world. 

 

Nobody should assume they have the right to come to this country because they have relatives already here or because they happen to reside in some part of the European Union. 

 

Britons looking to emigrate to Australia, Canada or the US fully expect to have to demonstrate their ability and willingness to contribute to their new country’s society and economy.  They fill in their visa applications as if they were job applications and they think it a privilege to be invited to go and live and work in those countries.  

 

We are in a global race and we owe it to the next generation to compete in that race fully.  They won’t thank us if our competitors are cherry picking the brightest and best for their team whilst we’re giving a game to anyone who turns up.

 

We need a policy that puts Britain and the British people first.  So if we want our society to thrive and our economy to prosper in an ever more competitive world, then our immigration policy must be an open and shut case.

 

Those in the political mainstream need to tackle this issue in a rational and responsible way.  If we do not, there are those on the political margins who will use it to create division and fear.  We have a duty to stop them.