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We need a rational debate on immigration

March 24, 2014

This week, Mark is launching a new group, ‘Conservatives for Managed Migration,’ in a bid to spark calm and rational debate about migration both within and beyond the Conservative Party. In the article below, he explains why:

In spite of consistently ranking as a top voter priority, for years our nation’s politicians ducked the touchy subject of immigration. Afraid of honest discussion, tough questions over the numbers of people coming here, and their integration into British society, were left almost totally unanswered by the political class.

Public resentment and anger fast filled the policy vacuum.

As that resentment has boiled over, so the political pendulum has swung erratically the other way. Former Labour Cabinet Ministers have since fallen over themselves to confess their mistakes in office, while the claim to have slashed immigration by a third has become a key campaigning mantra for the Conservative portion of the coalition. The rumbling threat of UKIP has only stiffened the resolve of mainstream parties to keep tough talk on immigration firmly on the front pages. The tone of debate suggests there is no middle ground between rabid, drawbridge-raising right-wingers and soft liberals bent on scrapping immigration controls.

In such a febrile atmosphere it has become almost impossible to have the rational debate we need. That is why I have decided to set up a new group, Conservatives for Managed Migration, to try to start that calm and reasoned discussion about immigration both within and beyond the Conservative Party.

It is a crucial discussion for two reasons. First, the current immigration crackdown has big implications for our nation and our economy. A cap on numbers is not only undeliverable but leads to an unhealthy focus on headline figures that is disconnected from reality. Since the government has precious few tools at its disposal to stem the tide of EU nationals, refugees and asylum seekers (protected by human rights legislation), government efforts to decrease numbers inevitably rest on keeping out many of the most desirable types of non-EU migrant – talented entrepreneurs, academics and business people. When the government fails to meet its own targets, voter distrust is only reinforced.

Second, the relentless focus on immigration by the Conservative Party seems to the outsider to border on near-obsession. The implicit message to the electorate is that my Party is fundamentally hostile to those who were not born here, and deems the presence of settled migrant communities to be a mistake. This in spite of the fact that many immigrants in Britain demonstrate just the kind of vision, enterprise and family values that would make them natural Tory voters.

It would be wrong not to acknowledge the great strides the government has made in improving our dysfunctional immigration system. Abuses have been cracked down on – bogus colleges, sham marriages, fake students, health tourists and the like – and the Home Office is stopping the endless cycle of legal appeals for rejected applications. The government has also been striving to address some of the so-called ‘pull’ factors which have made Britain such an appealing destination for those exploiting generous Western health and benefits systems.

But the hostile tone of debate and the imposition of an arbitrary cap on numbers send out the wrong message about what my Party stands for. It is also wreaking economic damage. Time and again businesses and globally-competitive universities tell me of the barriers they face in securing entry to Britain for the people we should be welcoming. By the same token, it seems impossible to deport that minority who do not play by the rules.

Britain’s world-beating education sector draws fee-paying students from across the globe, many of whom go back to their home nations as tremendous ambassadors for the UK for decades to come. A 2011 report by the Home Affairs Select Committee suggested that 27 contemporary foreign heads of state were educated in the UK. There is no cap on international student numbers, but the government’s explicit objective has been to reduce student numbers as a means of bringing net migration to under 100 000 by the next election. The treatment of student and post-study work visas has now become a cause of regular complaint amongst top universities in my constituency with prospective overseas academic staff now preferring to move to the US and Australia instead.

These complaints are echoed by senior business people. Barriers to entry include the complexity and cost of getting a visa, interminable queues at our borders, and long journeys to get approvals at far-flung overseas embassies. It is a cliché that a reputation takes years to build but can be lost in an instant. However, the UK runs a real risk of losing its hard won standing as a country that welcomes trade, investment and talented students from around the world at a time when we most need international expertise and capital.

Our rhetoric at home needs to change too. Politically, the Conservative Party has always thrived most when it has adapted to or led change in Britain.  We must avoid hysterical reactions to the problems of the last decade, when migration did indeed drift out of control. Nor should we be trying to recreate a Britain as it was in the 1950s.  Those who have or will come here are not numbers – they are people. There are many minority and migrant communities who are bursting with the sort of entrepreneurial vision and family commitment that should make them natural Conservatives – but they are hardly going to embrace our Party us if we rarely seen to embrace them.

The problem with the immigration debate is that it has long been stifled by a lack of candour. In truth, the movement of international business people, students and academics is not the nub of the issue. Although few support employers choosing an international worker over a similarly skilled Briton, or welcome with open arms each and every person wanting to make a new life here, equally most people accept that flexibility in a country’s immigration system is now part and parcel of being a signed-up member of the global economy. Instead, worries about immigration broadly stem from a sense of rapid change to our communities alongside a feeling of impotence, a loss of control, over our ability to deport undesirables.

The aim of Conservatives for Managed Migration, launching this week, is to try to rebalance the national debate on immigration. We must and we shall make the positive case for welcoming those who can make our country greater, and for putting in place realistic and robust systems of control that can regain business and public trust. We believe that in doing so we can make both our nation, and our Party, stronger.