Telegraph View: Britain must have an honest and open discussion about immigration that addresses the public’s social and cultural concerns.
By Telegraph View
Published: 7:17AM BST 28 Jun 2010
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, will today announce a cap on the number of immigrants from outside the EU allowed to come to Britain to work. The figure has been widely forecast to be 24,100 between now and April, when a ceiling for the following financial year will be set. But will this make any difference – and are we even addressing the right issue? We first need to decide what it is that an immigration policy is supposed to achieve. It would be patently daft if it kept from the country wealthy investors whose money and expertise will be needed to fuel economic growth.
Part of the problem is that this debate is being conducted almost entirely in economic terms because no politician wants to address the social and cultural dimensions that are at the root of many people’s concerns. EU migration is irrelevant because it cannot be stopped, and the fact is that most people from other European countries tend to want to return home after a while. In any case, the country with the largest number of nationals living in other EU countries is the UK, with a lot of retired people in France and Spain. The immigration that needs to be controlled is not solely economic, however, but that relating to family reunion and marriage as well. The last government changed the rules in June 1997 to permit marriage to be used as a means of immigration. Before then, the “Primary Purpose Rule” required an applicant to show “that the marriage was not entered into primarily to obtain admission to the United Kingdom”. It is now possible, in practice, to enter into a marriage with someone settled in Britain purely for the purpose of immigration, provided certain legal requirements
Since 1997, immigration by spouses has doubled. Problems of illiteracy and cultural isolation have grown, making integration more difficult to achieve. This is the untold story of immigration that needs to be debated. Among non-EU nationals, work-related migrants make up just one third of the total – with students, family members and dependants comprising the other two thirds. The Coalition agreement speaks of an annual limit on non-EU economic migration but makes no mention of an overall target range for net immigration, even though David Cameron has said that his aim is to return to a pre-1997 position when net migration was measured in “tens of thousands not hundreds of thousands”.
However, it is arguable whether this can be achieved by addressing non-EU economic migration alone without also looking again at family reunion, especially from the Indian subcontinent, if only to rule out any changes. Instead of a cap on economic migration, the Government should consider an explicit target range for net immigration. This would mean that immigration policies could be adjusted in line with a broad objective that would also take account of population increase. The Labour government recognised far too late that the record levels of immigration had given rise to problems of social cohesion, in addition to the damage caused to the job prospects of many British workers. It eventually adopted a system denying permanent settlement to workers who fail to meet certain standards of professionalism and educational qualifications. But some of the wider reasons for immigration, and its consequences, are still not discussed.
The Coalition has been refreshingly candid about the problems the country faces. We need an honest and open discussion about immigration as well, not the bogus debates and timidity that marked out the deliberations of the last administration. These are complex and sensitive issues but that is no reason to duck them.