Is the Government answering the wrong question on immigration?

Gordon Brown entered the controversial debate on immigration today. His speech was full of policy detail but lacked an effective political narrative.

Gordon Brown entered the controversial debate on immigration today, with a speech full of policy detail, but the Government still lacks an effective political narrative.

As the Prime Minister was at pains to point out, net migration to the UK is already falling sharply – largely as a consequence of changing economic conditions and the tailing off of the one-off surge in immigration which the UK experienced after EU enlargement in 2004. But the Government has taken important steps to gain control of migration, and Gordon Brown was right today to highlight the importance of initiatives such as e-borders.

He was also keen to emphasise changes to tighten up the ‘Points-Based System’ which now governs migration from outside the EU for work or study in the UK.  Most of the changes that the Prime Minister announced today simply represent the Government accepting the expert advice of the Migration Advisory Committee, which conducts periodic reviews of the labour market to decide which jobs should remain on the ‘shortage list’ that determines which jobs can be most easily filled from outside the UK.  But the shortage list is only a small part of the Points-Based System, which itself determines only a small proportion of total immigration to the UK.

In fact, there wasn’t much new policy in Gordon Brown’s speech – minor tweaks to a system which has been put in place over a number of years.  This was a political intervention, not a policy one, but it was a political intervention based on a narrative that has been tried and found wanting by a succession of ministers in the last decade.

The public are worried about immigration, and they want to feel confident that the government is in control of the system.  Fair enough.  But being in control does not mean driving numbers down at any cost.  A policy approach which equates control with ‘toughness’ risks sacrificing many of the benefits that the UK currently receives from migration.

The Government has already put in place much of the architecture that is needed to achieve control, which should allow the UK to continue to reap the benefits of migration in the future as it has in the past.  But this message was weakened today by the continual drive to announce (mostly minor) ways of ‘tightening’ the immigration system.  When ministers suggest the need to ‘get tough’ on migration, they fail to convince the public that they are in control, and often actually undermine public confidence in a system which they have worked hard to improve.

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4 Responses to “Is the Government answering the wrong question on immigration?”

  1. Jessica Asato

    Absolutely agree with this Sarah. It’s not that there shouldn’t be a debate about immigration it’s on what terms that debate is conducted. Brown’s speech seemed to start from the premise that immigrants who come to this country are not prepared to accept British law or understand British values, that they automatically impose a burden on public services which they must pay for, and that they undercut working-class Brits in the jobs market. I am sure that there are examples of this happening for all three situations, but to suggest that they are always a consequence of immigration is misleading. I don’t see why it is as Brown asserts, ‘entirely fair that newcomers themselves should be asked to make an additional contribution, over and above the taxes they pay, to help the communities they are joining’ – what if they don’t impose a burden at all? What if they bring in wealth to this country?

    The other issue which I didn’t feel was addressed in Brown’s speech was not immediate immigration but the position of older waves of immigrants. Many of the conflicts in Bradford and Oldham do not occur simply within new migrant communities, but among young people who were born and raised here. Poverty, joblessness, lack of aspiration and racial hostility are what really affects social cohesion on our estates. There is a danger that Brown will give a false sense that the jobs he is saving are for white citizens only, not brown or black ones. And the only way you head that off is by saying loud and clear that migrants who came here legally and settled in this country deserve exactly the same rights to work, to social housing and to benefits as white citizens. That was somehow missing in the speech I felt.

  2. Jessica Asato

    RT @leftfootfwd Is the Government answering the wrong question on immigration? asks ippr's Sarah Mulley < yes!

  3. Politics Summary: Friday, November 13th | Left Foot Forward

    […] Left Foot Forward asked yesterday whether Gordon Brown was answering the wrong question on immigration. He announced that more than 250,000 skilled jobs will be closed to non-European overseas workers. An official review of student visas will look at raising the minimum level of course, introducing mandatory English language tests, and blocking overseas students from working part-time in temporary jobs. Brown dismissed Tory plans for an annual quota of migrant workers. Frank Field and Nicholas Soames, heads of the cross-party Balanced Migration Group, said: “The prime minister misses the big picture. The points-based system has no limit, affects just 20 per cent of immigration, and will not stop the UK’s population hitting 70m in 2029.” Keith Best of the Immigration Advisory Service said he was “very worried” that any clampdown on student visas could harm the UK’s lucrative English-language teaching sector. […]

  4. jj johnson

    i disagree….i think that all immagrants should be able to decide for themselves and not the goverment…..its clearly up to those who come to this country as an immigrant to find out if they are ready to accept the laws and way of life here in america, just like everyone else wants to decide for themselves, “outsiders” should as well……

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