This essay from James Clappison MP appears in the new book published this week by ConservativeHome, entitled The Future of Conservatism. We published a recommendation for a flat tax yesterday, from Edward Leigh. Find out more about the book.
There are few greater challenges for the present government than restoring confidence in Britain’s immigration system. To do it, we need to regain control of our borders and give more encouragement for migrants to feel part of British society.
While large sections of the political class and broadcasting establishment regard the subject as untouchable, the depth of public concern about immigration is clear. Gordon Brown’s encounter with “bigoted woman” Gillian Duffy during the last general election campaign neatly encapsulated the clash of mindsets and cultures.
So how did we get here?
In the 1980s net immigration was on average under 50,000 a year. In the mid 1990s it increased to around 60,000. There were problems with the asylum system, but immigration scarcely registered among the public’s main concerns.
Then, in 1997, New Labour won power. Their manifesto promised voters “firm control over immigration” but within five years Labour more than doubled the number of work permits issued to non-EU workers. Net immigration rose from 50,000 in 1997 to 245,000 in 2004.
In May 2004, the Eastern European ‘A8’ countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, joined the EU. Labour predicted only 15,000 A8 nationals would arrive in Britain each year seeking work. Just two years later, 600,000 migrants from A8 countries had come to these shores.
Labour claimed immigration helped the economy. An authoritative report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs disagreed. There is much we can learn from economic migrants who travel long distances in search of employment and work hard once they have found it. However, it is at least highly debatable that high levels of migration bring significant economic benefits.
What is beyond doubt is high levels of migration contribute to population growth. More than two thirds of Britain’s population growth is attributable to immigration. We now face the prospect of the UK’s population reaching 70 million within 20 years. It is very hard to believe this would have anything other than a dramatic effect on quality of life, the environment, transport infrastructure and public services.
So what should we do about it?
The Conservative Party was right to make immigration a priority following the formation of the Coalition. Now it must stick to its aim of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands we saw under Labour. The cap of 21,700 on migrants who can come to Britain from outside the European Economic Area is a good start.
Similarly, the Government is right to announce its intention to break the link between employment–related migration and settlement. The fact someone is permitted to work in the UK should not necessarily lead to settlement and citizenship. The Government’s review of the graduate visa system, used by overseas students as a route into the UK, is also sensible.
However, we could go further. In addition to caps on non-EU migrants and better enforcement of existing restrictions on visas and bogus marriages, we should consider the following measures.
First, the Government must rule out future amnesties for illegal immigrants. Migrants must of course receive fair treatment under the law, but blanket amnesties undermine the credibility of the immigration system and have a history of failure.
Second, we should repeal human rights laws which override fair immigration policies. Under the Human Rights Act, there has been an growing tendency for dangerous foreign criminals to avoid deportation on human rights grounds. In this way the public interest plays second fiddle to questionable interpretations of human rights legislation. It will be difficult to win public confidence in our immigration system unless and until the government addresses this.
Third, the government should restrict migration from new EU countries. This and future governments must learn from New Labour’s mistakes. It should demand not just temporary, transitional restrictions but permanent control of labour movement from any new EU Member State. If the British government is unable to agree such measures, then it should be prepared to veto the accession of any country to the EU.
Fourth, we must keep work permits out of free trade agreements. As part of a proposed EU-India free trade deal, the European Commission wants to offer 50,000 EU work permits a year to Indian nationals. Around 20,000 of these would be UK work permits – that’s three times as many as Germany and seven times as many as France would grant. It is vital the Government resists any such move, as it would make reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands very difficult.
Fifth, the government should plan for the size of population it wishes to see, ideally as close to the current population as possible. Any government which permits the UK population to rapidly increase towards the 70 million mark and beyond as a result of immigration will have failed to discharge its responsibilities.
As well as controlling Britain’s borders, we need to ensure migrants feel part of British society. To do this we must recognise that state multiculturalism has failed. Where we should bring people together, multiculturalism keeps them apart.
We need a better model for integration to promote integration and a sense of unity. This should emphasise the strength of our national traditions as something that unites us and in which we can all take pride. Existing traditions should be celebrated, not displaced.
Labour lost public confidence on immigration. The challenge for the Conservative Party is to earn public trust. That is why we should not regard immigration as taboo. We should be prepared to take a lead, to speak about immigration and to show we understand the depth of public concern and will translate this into decisive action.
We in the Conservative Party appreciate the Liberal Democrats have different views on immigration and we will need to work constructively with them on this issue. However, the Conservative Party must show it understands the importance of immigration policy to a large section of the electorate, who are entitled to have at least one of our political parties stand up for their interests. To neglect their concerns would be a colossal mistake.