Creating a Fairer Immigration in the UK

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Creating a Fairer Immigration in the UK

I AM a second generation immigrant. My father was born in what was British India. He originally came to Scotland in the late 1960s in search of opportunity and a better life than he had known back home. He started working as a bus driver, and later as an electrical engineer, and after a while, he set up a newsagent’s in Glasgow. As a kid, I would go into work with him at the shop. So my formative experience was of a Britain seen both through the immigrant eyes of my parents and the sharply anti-immigrant pages of some of the newspapers that we would haul into the shop at dawn each morning.

My experience, or something similar, has been shared by many generations of people in this country. Many of us could not be knee-jerk xenophobes if we tried. To do so would be to argue retrospectively that our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents should never have been allowed the opportunity we have enjoyed. But I think that over the past decade or so, what we have seen from the government is the other extreme. We have been so open to immigrants we have not even worried about how many is too many. In fact, for many people, even to think there might be a limit to what the country can take in is taboo.

That is no longer a sustainable point of view. Over the past 12 years, this country has presided over higher levels of immigration than we have seen at any time in our recent history — 1.6 million people have been granted permanent right of residence. Many more have also stayed and subsequently left. The problem is nobody decided to open the doors so wide. At no point was it deliberate government policy. It happened almost incidentally, as a result of other policies.

Because there was no explicit decision that immigration should be high, there has been minimal debate on how many people we should allow to come to the country. What there has been instead is a debate on how to decide who gets in. The government’s big reform has been the Australian-style points system, which gives it greater control over the type of skills that come into the country. But while this debate has given ministers reforms to trumpet, which Prime Minister Gordon Brown was doing yesterday, it does not speak to the debate about what the aggregate level of immigration should be.

That has had big effects. First, it has let the most strident voices dominate the debate. The result has been a lowering of the tone. One MP argued with a straight face that he could tell Britain was full because the trains were so crowded. This kind of right-wing demagogic “Britain is full” rhetoric is ugly, dumb and wrong, and I believe it is not representative of a very large body of opinion in Britain. But it is an opinion we hear loudly in the public debate: not because so many Britons are xenophobic, but because there are so few populist voices arguing the benefits of immigration on employment, business, skills and our economy.

The worst aspect of this, however, is that it has, I believe, done damage far beyond the immigration debate itself. It has undermined many people’s confidence in politics as a whole. Immigration is an issue that people rightly expect the government to have a stance on. If they do not, or if their stance is inaudible, people feel that, on an important issue, they do not know where the leading parties stand.

It is also important as it is an issue whose effects people encounter day to day. You may go to visit your GP only every so often, you may try to choose a new school only once or twice per child, but you interact with many people every day, many from abroad, and increasing numbers from countries to which we have no significant historical ties. Cumulatively, these interactions — good or bad — inform perception of the effect of immigrants on this country. They are fed into chat between neighbours or over dinner tables, and collectively form a political stance, whether conscious or not. That is why immigration is such an incredibly emotive issue, and that is what the mainstream parties do not seem to have understood.

The sense that there is no debate between the main parties on immigration levels has been responsible for the ugly rise of racist parties such as the BNP. The past few years have been an object lesson in the danger of not having an adequate national debate about immigration. All three main parties need to spell out more loudly their moral and political positions to dispel the sense of drift.

In short, I believe immigration must be controlled so the nation and people benefit. At the moment, our system means immigrants are divided into two: those from European Union countries, and those from outside the EU. Those from EU countries can come, but, in practice, this has just increased the number of people coming for a short period and leaving later. This is good for the economy, giving us skills when we need them and flexibility when, as in the recession, those jobs dry up.

The “points system” applies to immigrants from outside the EU. The more skills you have, and the more those skills are in demand, the more likely you will be to be allowed to migrate to Britain. At the moment, politicians from the Home Office set the criteria for which skills are needed, and so who can come to the country. This leads to the possibility of politicians deciding our immigration rate based on partisan, media-driven concerns. It is similar to where we were in the mid-90s with interest rates: politicians could decide to keep rates low as a pre-election sweetener, even though it might not be right for the economy. In the same way this was solved by giving the Bank of England the power to set interest rates, the solution to the immigration conundrum is for the government to allow the Migration Advisory Committee to set the level of points needed. They should do so according to three criteria: the needs of the economy, the demand on public services and the desire to keep aggregate numbers below a politically decided maximum.

That would solve both problems. It would mean immigration was controlled, so the nation and people benefit. And it would mean that revulsion for racism and xenophobia did not stop us from thinking about what the optimum level of immigration should be.

Immigration is good for this country. But uncontrolled immigration is bad for the politics of this country. Here, at least, is one idea to solve it.

Azeem Ibrahim is research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the US, board member of the Institute of Social Policy Understanding and chairman and chief executive of Ibrahim Associates.


This article appeared on Harvard’s Belfer Center on April 1, 2010:


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