Perhaps we should ask ourselves: what kind of Global Britain do we need?
On Tuesday evening I joined an excellent panel to discuss the future of UK immigration policy, along with Professor Jonathan Portes of King’s College London, Mark Reynolds, CEO of global construction company Mace, and Alp Mehmet, vice chairman of Migration Watch. We were lucky that Glyn Williams, Director General of the Home Office, was also present to set out the Government’s thinking on the future of our immigration system.
Discussion about immigration policy so far has mainly focussed on the supply side of the equation — who do we want to have here? But we also need to think about demand, who is it that we need here? Migration is important to keep our country working, helping us to stay on the long-term path to growth and prosperity. But if we want a system that works for, and is trusted by, all, we need to acknowledge that public concern is not just about economics. From conversations with my own constituents, I believe their anxiety is not so much about immigration itself, but about successive governments’ failure to prepare adequately for it. That’s been compounded by the harsh effects of austerity, and, for some, by a lost sense of national identity.
Politicians need to be alive to those concerns. But the answer isn’t Fortress Britain. If we turn our back on immigration, our economy, our culture and our communities will become poorer, more isolated – and angrier.
The obligation on politicians to address the effects of austerity and underlying injustices must be coupled with a willingness to make the positive case for migration, and to be clear about the trade-offs needed to support growth and prosperity. Migrants often pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits or public services. As the MAC pointed out in their report on EEA migration last September, over a lifetime, EEA immigrants will make a significant contribution to UK public finances, paying on average around £2,300 more annually into the exchequer than British workers.
So we need to be confident in repeating the changing story of migration, the role migrants play in our economy, whether as NHS workers, sportspeople or construction workers. But we also need to be able to demonstrate that the system’s robust, to reassure the public that immigration is being managed.
The challenge for government is to bring together industrial, skills and immigration strategies so that British workers aren’t undercut, and can develop and progress in employment, while we welcome labour from other countries, not just to fill gaps, but to bring new ideas and perspectives. That can happen at every level in the workplace – which is one reason why I find the government’s obsession with ‘the brightest and best’ so depressing. Government must also invest in an immigration system that makes decisions swiftly and accurately, and removes people who don’t have the right to be here. And we all need to celebrate and support our thriving, diverse communities, and take pride in offering a welcome to newcomers.
There is fertile opportunity to do this now. Recent polling shows a shift in public attitudes. IpsosMori trend surveys show that while 64% were negative about immigration in 2011, today that’s shrunk to 26%. From being one of the countries which was most negative towards immigration, the UK has now become one of the most positive. That gives me hope for a sensible, ethical and welcoming immigration policy for the future, one that meets the needs and ambitions of our country, and of everyone who lives in and contributes to it.
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