Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
In an interview broadcast last week Nigel Farage was asked if he was in favour of keeping laws which ban employment discrimination on the grounds of race or colour. He answered “no”. Farage has since claimed that he had been “wilfully misrepresented”. This is completely untrue, and I would advise any readers in doubt to go to the Channel 4 website, watch the clip and see for yourself.
I was born in Baghdad but am deeply proud to call myself British. My parents chose to make Britain their home because this was a place where belonging was about what you put in, rather than where you came from.
What’s frightening is that in Farage’s Britain people like me could be lawfully discriminated against and British businesses would be encouraged to bin our CVs.
The UKIP argument is that British firms should be allowed to positively discriminate in favour of UK-born workers. Yet anyone who’s ever actually run their own business will know that employers want to hire the best person for the job, whoever they happen to be. This is a point Farage implicitly concedes. We’ve heard many times that he employs his German-born wife as his assistant because ‘no-one could do that job.’ Well, quite.
Our task in Government is to make sure that as far as possible UK-born workers are the best person for the job, able to compete on their merit. Partly that’s about welfare reform, ensuring those who aren’t in work have strong financial incentives to take the vacancies on offer. Partly it’s about better schools and more skills, so employers don’t have to look elsewhere to fill crucial skills gaps. We’re doing both: a more rigorous curriculum, a massive expansion of apprenticeships, and the most ambitious welfare reforms in a generation.
Welfare and skills are two policy areas which we hear very little about from the UKIP leader. This is unsurprising because they require deep thought and serious long-term reform rather than the angry slogans which are his stock in trade. Labour left us with some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world, and a third of children leaving primary school unable to read, write and add up. I would be interested to hear how scrapping the Race Relations Act will help us tackle that disastrous legacy.
The good news is that we don’t need to follow Farage’s advice because our approach is working. Since the election two thirds of new jobs have gone to UK-born workers, a huge improvement on the situation we inherited. Between 2003 and 2008, the height of Brown’s so-called boom, 91 percent of the rise in employment was accounted for by foreign nationals. There’s still much more to do of course, which is why it’s vital that we have a chance to complete our reforms.
There are very legitimate public concerns about immigration but none of them have anything to do with race. What the public want is a system of managed immigration, one which delivers us economic benefits but which doesn’t put pressure on communities or the taxpayer. It’s why a key part of our renegotiation with the EU will be to restore fairness to freedom of movement, so people move here for work not benefits. The public also want to be confident that those who do come here will be integrated, which is why citizenship shouldn’t be just about having British passport but about signing up to a shared set of British values. Yet frightening Britain’s minorities with divisive and racist rhetoric will have the opposite effect, making it harder to have a calm conversation about what more needs to be done to bring communities together.
There are no quick fixes. Even under the much-vaunted Australian points-based system 26 percent of the Australian population are foreign-born. All countries have to make trade-offs between meeting an immediate demand for skills and investing long-term in their own education and skills systems. The last Labour Government got this balance very badly wrong which is why rebuilding trust in our immigration system will take time.
Finally, a word of warning to UKIP. As Mark Wallace recently observed on this site, apart from anything else this kind of rhetoric risks also discrediting the wider Eurosceptic movement. There are plenty of people in this country who don’t follow the ins and outs of Britain’s institutional arrangements with the EU but who take a strong stance on racism. If they hear many more of these kinds of comments they are likely to conclude that whatever Farage is against they are definitely for.