Tomorrow’s Immigration

in ‘White Papers’, Reports, Articles

Immigration is a toxic orthodoxy of our time. Its policy has been undebatable. The public frustration is manifest in the hushed conversations of liberals who fear the racist trump, in the BNP vote, and in the confusion as to whose country this is anyway. It could lose Labour the election, almost on its own. It needs an open honest debate now, even though the horse has bolted. Statistical warfare won’t solve it.

The benefits of immigration are well-rehearsed : essential for the functioning of the NHS, filling major skills gaps for employers and industries from hotels and catering to construction, a core part of the economic growth formula of the last decade, boosting entrepreneurialism, bringing yet more diversity to our culture, winning the Olympics and providing sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers. All true.

But this narrow, largely economic assessment excludes the holistic experience of many people, which in turn leads them to conclude the government does not understand. The disbenefits are in congestion, population size, house prices, costs of incremental infrastucture, social exclusion, social housing allocation, rate of social change, displaced citizens, the adaptation ratio, national identity, and an unease about the long-term destination of our values. Emotion is part of this mix.

In 1995, the concept of Tomorrow’s Company was founded by an RSA inquiry. This concluded that companies perform better in the long-term and become part of society when they serve not the shareholders alone but all their stakeholders: customers, staff, and society.

A balanced, progressive and sustainable policy for immigration will take into account all the stakeholders and all the costs and outcomes. Tomorrow’s Immigration is not about whether, but about how much, when, the rate, and the adaptation deal between immigrant and resident. Immigration is one of those policies that cannot be imposed successfully on various unwilling sections of the public for the very obvious reason that this big a change cannot proceed without collective commitment. Like it or not, it’s called democracy…………

A view I have held for 40+years is that our country would be a great place to live with about half the population. Imagine the open space, the ease of travel, the availability of houses, with a population density nearer that of France. Instead, the government’s unstated policy is to let population grow, largely driven by immigration. No-one has asked me whether I want a population of 70 million. Even if I am obliged to be crammed into a commuter train, what is the sustainable UK population in terms of energy, food and water security in a world of increasing resource constraint? Population matters and thus so too does the rate of immigration.

Government policy has been founded on the believed virtuous circle of economic migrants filling labour needs, this fuelling growth and supporting the tax base for unfunded state and public sector pensions as the dependency ratio between the retired and the working age population grew. A growing population is deemed inevitable to fund longer lives: the taxes of the working population fund these pensions for the retired population.

This would be amusing as piece of analysis if it were not so detrimental in other ways. Consider that on average we are going to live about 15 years longer than the Beveridge foundation of the welfare state assumed when the funding added up. A longer life is much to my benefit. But the current policy is that a collection of immigrants is going to bear the cost of my longevity. Whilst one variable in this equation was changing – lifespan – the others were kept fixed – retirement age, responsibility for pension provision, and the notion that once retired we should be looked after. The Adair report made some inroads into this piece of illogic by increasing the standard retirement age, but as a society we have not embraced the obvious point that the extraordinary benefit of a longer life has to be funded by those receiving the benefit, both by personal pension provision and by working longer. 60 is the new 40. Whilst working, we will each have to save for our pension, if we want to live above the base state safety net. Those in their 20s have worked out both that they will be living for a very long time and working for a very long time too, although not always 5 days a week.  The 40 and 50 somethings, often determining policy, have had their eye on the current retirement age for too long.

By shifting the mindset from work-retire-pension as of right, to work-leisure-work- semi retire-work part time, a further benefit appears. Suddenly a whole new labour supply is opened up as the notionally retired take up new skills and jobs. This fits, too, with those who do not want to or do fully retire at the SRA now. The current obstacles to older people taking up new careers have to be torn down.

The Work Foundation’s report Migration Myths: Employment, Wages and Labour Market Performance, states  “perhaps a more serious source of social tension is to be found in the rather disturbing fact that the number of workless households has remained virtually unchanged since 1997”, about 2million.  Bringing the “socially excluded” back into work is not easy, but it becomes almost impossible when the demand side of their equation falls to zero as employers can fill their needs with educated, skilled and/or highly motivated migrants. The Smith Institute, in its report on the Young Offenders Programme led by National Grid Transco for gas operatives, shows how some of the excluded can be brought back into work – an end in itself and an alternative source to migrant workers. These programmes take intelligence, care and time. But the end is essential. Schooling is another trap for the excluded that, for them, will need to change radically.

A more virtuous circle would prioritise the socially excluded and older people in filling labour needs, change our attitude to post SRA life, and tackle the pensions inequality inherent in some being in unfunded fixed benefit schemes and some in funded contribution based benefit schemes.

The notion that labour supply for some vocations has to depend on immigrants can be challenged. The proportion of teachers who are resident-born is far lower than the propotion of nurses, as an absolute requirement of teaching is fluency in English. The government has therefore been forced to recruit homegrown by increasing teachers’ salaries, rasing their status, changing the training, and recruiting older (including 50+) people. These changes have also been aimed at improving quality. Changes appropriate to the labour market in other vocations would increase supply and reduce the need for economic migrants, and boost the average per capita tax return.

But the issue is about so much more than the numbers and the mechanics. Liberal Conspiracy has an excellent piece making sense of the statistics and rebutting the hysteria of the Mail and others: “In 1991, just after the end of the Thatcher decade, two out of every seven jobs in the UK labour market were in the non-service sector. By the time New Labour took office in 1997, this had fallen to one in four and by 2008 it was only one in five.  That’s what’s really hurt the white working class in Britain, their failure/inability to adapt to the changing labour market, and the rise in the number of foreign-born workers during this period is, for the most part, a by-product of that failure, not its cause.”

But does “their failure” mean they don’t count or can’t see that access to “their jobs” is cut off or that housing allocation criteria in practice priviledge immigrants over them? Perhaps this LC paragraph does more to explain the rise of the BNP than anything. Has there been a single policy since the minimum wage specifically for the white working class?

In the early days of New Labour, fear of crime was acknowledged as as important as crime itself. Communities stopped being told to stop worrying as crime was coming down. Perception and feeling matters. Policy turned towards reducing the fear of crime as an end in itself. How people feel about immigration matters, as much. Whilst it happens that the news media do build fear, depression and witchhunts, how people feel can and does have basis in their experience and should never be dismissed by a statistical onslaught or clever analysis from an office. There is never any substitute for starting on the ground with people’s experiences if a successful policy is to be put into practice. Consumer strategy is its term in the trade.

In any change from family upheaval to mass redundancy, people take a long time to adapt, following the well-established change curve of shock, denial, depression, anger, resignation, acceptance and understanding. Mass immigration is a major change and takes time to adapt to. There is a rate of absorption which is exceeded by the c.500,000 immigrants( plus illegals) in 2007, which cannot be gainsaid by the left blogs explaining that net migration is well down.

Further, the extent of adaptation in the UK is greater than other countries. This is how Kevin Rudd the Labour PM put it with typical Australian candour: `Immigrants not Australians must adapt. I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture. This culture has been developed over two centuries of struggles, trials and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom. We speak mainly English. If you wish to become part of our society, learn the language. We will accept your beliefs, and will not question why. All we ask is that you accept ours, and live in harmony and peaceful enjoyment with us. This is our country, our land, and our lifestyle, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. If you aren’t happy here then leave. We didn’t force you to come here. You asked to be here. So accept the country you accepted.’

Australia does, I gather, have much to learn about racial tolerance. But, in the UK, the deal is weighted far more to the immigrant than the resident. Our deal would be better and different from Australia’s. But we need one, (which would include the right to Christmas lights), and which would also help to guide immigrants and put clear limits on multiculturism (which should never equal any-culturism).

In response to racism, the crie-de-coeur has been to embrace and understand cultures. Our colonial superiority has needed the antidote of realising many cultures have achieved great civilisation when we were medieval. Further, today many countries have different values, beliefs and practices, but these are not per se worse than ours. Indeed they may be better. We can pride ourselves on our grasp and celebration of many cultures. But, this does not mean that we abandon all judgement. Some cultures are more civilised and better than others. Most obviously, the extent of violence in all forms – internecine, legal punishment to female circumcision – is a very clear measure of a country’s civilisation. Personal choice and corruption are others. These are not matters of taste. They are absolutes about which we should have no hesitation in their stating and publically valuing, and in condemning their lack, wherever found.

The policy for non-economic immigrants – families, asylum, refugees, illegals – is, in its application, often more liberal, woolly or slack than other countries’ particularly those English-speaking, which are our major competitors for non-immigration. The institutional oxymoron of the Centre for Overstayers perhaps sums up that approach.

In Ingwavuma, Zululand all the babies are born in September as all the men come home from work once a year at Christmas. It is a tough world. Within the country, economics determines that there is no right to having your family settle with you.  Working in the UK would improve the lot of these men. Should they then also be granted citizenship? Should their families then have a right to come too? How far are we willing to go in helping the very small proportion of the world’s needy that we do through immigration? Are there other ways? What is the impact on the donor country of losing all that dynamism and their skills and labour to us?

There is so much more to be said. But, I hope the complexity and real experience of the issue has come across. If ever a policy needed proper extended public engagement to succeed, it is this. The policy has somehow occurred through Labour’s heart being founded on the disadvantaged and minorities. Women and the disabled have been its other main expressions in this period in government. As the consequences have unfolded and finally received an airing, mighty defences have been deployed to counter the right-wing news media attack. In mounting the largely statistical defence, people on the ground have been ignored. It has been a comfort too, to be able to say “we are liberal on immigration”, as though that makes the wholesale change justifiable. In this context, “being liberal” means being liberal in terms of access for immigrants, and the granting of citizenship and family rights too. Being liberal means the very lax application of policy by a disinterested or inept civil service. But there is nothing liberal about being crushed on the Northern Line, stuck on the M62, rising house prices, pressure on social housing, restricted access to jobs, the forgotten tribe as it is termed, or being called a racist for questioning immigration policy. The Basques, possibly, have less to object to from a nationalist perspective.

The paradox is that we really were the only country to stand up to fascism in 1939, and that today we are probably the most racially tolerant country in the world; but that our tolerance has been taken too far in adaptation, change and in our sense of our country and where it will end up. We need a balanced, progressive and democratic immigration policy. We don’t have one.

Ed Straw

Background paper for BBC Radio 4 programme 8 Feb 2010


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