Comment: Pure electioneering from Theresa May

The home secretary used her immigration speech to place herself on the right of the Tory party


In the home secretary’s speech to the Conservative Party conference, we have rhetoric that is much more about an impending Tory leadership election than it is about immigration. Theresa May’s choice of language was about marking her position on the right of the party, rather than announcing much new policy.

Casting her eye to continental Europe, May promised an overhaul of the asylum system. She suggested that the UK would offer more short-term temporary protection, rather than allowing refugees to remain for five years, as happens at present. (When a successful asylum-seeker gets refugee status, he or she is initially given five years residency).

The home secretary argued for short-term protection of the persecuted, who would be removed if the situation in their home countries improved. It should be noted that prior to 2004 the government took such an approach, when it awarded asylum-seekers a status called Exception Leave to Remain (ELR).

However, re-applying for extensions of ELR placed a huge bureaucratic burden on immigration officers and large asylum backlogs. Theresa May did not announce any extra spending on processing asylum claims.

More detail will emerge on the asylum proposals. But much of May’s speech focused on numbers. Net migration to the UK – immigration minus emigration – now runs at 330,000 persons. This is despite a 2010 manifesto pledge by the Tories to reduce it to the ‘tens of thousands’ by 2015. The home secretary stated that there is ‘no case for high levels of migration’ and the UK did not need it.

Yet there are sectors of the economy that rely on migrant workers – skilled and unskilled – the NHS, for example. Theresa May failed to acknowledge any benefits of migration at all, in her unremitting harsh language.

Taking the case of the NHS, about 11 per cent of all staff and 26 per cent of doctors are non-UK nationals. High proportions of NHS staff have been born overseas, but have now become British citizens.

From the beginning, the health service has always recruited overseas; Enoch Powell championed the recruitment of overseas nurses from the Caribbean in the 1950s.

The NHS needs overseas-born staff because so many UK-trained staff leave the UK to work abroad. UK-trained staff are the second largest migrant nurse group (after the Philippines) and the third largest migrant doctor group (after India and Germany) working in OECD countries.  Workforce planning is also complex in the NHS with its many different specialisms, leading to sudden shortages in some areas.

Migrant health workers are also needed because many NHS jobs are low paid and UK-born staff with families cannot afford housing in areas such as London. Many overseas-born NHS staff leave their families at home and live in shared accommodation in the UK.

There is little evidence to show that overseas-born NHS workers are displacing those born in the UK. Rather, they are enabling this essential service to function. There can be few of us who have not benefitted from the care and expertise of migrant doctors and nurses. The home secretary did not acknowledge this, or any other benefits.

This unpleasant speech puts clear blue water between Theresa May and Boris Johnson, another leadership contender. Johnson is a London MP, whose views on migration have reflected the needs of businesses and the opinions of his ethnically diverse constituents. Today’s speech should thus be seen as nothing more than electioneering.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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