By Lord Carey
Member of the Cross Party Group on Balanced Migration and Former Archbishop of Canterbury
The Mail on Sunday, 7 October, 2012
On the eve of the Tory conference, the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury pleads with David Cameron to confront out 'most divisive issue'.
We are two-thirds of the way through party conference season. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been keen to attack the Government on the economy and claim they are the parties to unite a country splitting into haves and have-nots.
But there has been a resounding silence on the most divisive issue in our national political debate. The scale of mass immigration in recent years is a subject virtually ignored despite having contributed, according to the most recent census, to the population growing by 3.7?million in ten years.
The challenge now is for the Conservative conference to bring this urgent issue to the forefront. The public has repeatedly said immigration is second only to the economy among the problems facing our country.
This concern was highlighted when a public petition on the Downing Street website reached the necessary 100,000 signatories to trigger a House of Commons debate within a week.
For years, anyone who has dared to tread, however carefully, on this disputed territory risked accusations of racism and intolerance. The word ‘bigot’ has been used by some politicians to describe anyone who questions the metropolitan consensus.
But the growing realisation that immigration is unsustainable at the current rate has led to a slow detoxification of the debate.
A number of parliamentarians – particularly those involved with the cross-party Balanced Migration Group, of which I am a member – have exploded many of the myths about immigration.
We have argued that concern about rapid population growth is not an issue of race, and neither should it be exploited by racists.
It is time for the leadership of the political parties to catch up with a growing consensus that mass immigration can and should be dealt with urgently and not shelved on the ‘to-do’ list.
Why should a former Church of England leader like myself intervene? After all, the Christian faith emphasises the need to welcome the stranger. Jesus and his family were themselves refugees fleeing to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod.
The Church has rightly and repeatedly given sanctuary to genuine asylum-seekers over the years. This compassionate Christian tradition has contributed to the British reputation for tolerance and a very proud history of welcoming successive waves of immigrants.
But there comes a point when we have to reconsider policy and, without backing away from a commitment to those who need asylum, find ways to limit the scale of immigration, which is disturbing our way of life.
The stark fact is that our proud heritage of welcoming strangers is threatened by the breakdown of our border control during the past 15 years. Net migration was allowed to increase from 50,000 a year in 1997 to a record level of 250,000 in 2010.
The growth in population during the ten years to 2011 was the largest recorded since the first census in 1801.
Many suspected a deliberate intention to change our society for ever by the last Labour Government. Others have claimed this rapid change is an inevitable consequence of globalisation.
The strains are showing in the area in which I grew up, East London. Local families, once close-knit, have been scattered around Essex. There has been an alarming rise in support for far-Right policies.
Communities are divided and sometimes segregated, threatening the cohesion of the ‘one nation’ our political leaders have been talking about. Our infrastructure is struggling to keep up with this unprecedented rise in population. Our maternity units are faring poorly. Likewise, our primary schools are under growing pressure.
Looking ahead, if present levels of immigration are allowed to continue, our population will reach 70?million in 15 years’ time. Of the extra seven million, about five million will be due to new immigrants and their children.
I can think of no one who really wants to see this happen, with its associated pressure on our creaking housing stock and the threat to the Green Belt.
We need to build a house every seven minutes over the next 15 years to accommodate new arrivals. Where are those houses to be built? And who is going to pay for all of this when the Government is already borrowing so heavily?
It is not hard to see why immigration is one of the most pressing concerns of the general public – including many successfully settled immigrant communities. They can see the problems on the ground. They are frustrated that our political masters and elite opinion-formers are brushing the issue under the carpet.
People are rightly worried and confused by a situation they sense is running out of control. And this party conference season will have done little to reassure them. There was barely a mention of the problem at the Liberal Democrat conference. Labour did better, with Ed Miliband touching upon the subject and promising minor measures.
My plea to David Cameron this week is to do better. Progress so far by the Government has been limited. Net migration in 2011 fell to 216,000 but this is woefully short of the Government’s target of getting the number below 100,000.
The trouble is, vested interests can confound any steps taken. Employers benefit from lower labour costs. Universities and colleges benefit financially from half a million foreign students who come to Britain every year.
In July, the Office for Budget Responsibility published a report stating that higher rates of immigration are good for the economy and good for debt reduction. Less noticed was the fact their scenario for more rapid debt reduction resulted in a UK population of 88?million in 2060 – 25?million more than today.
Even this, they admitted, would only postpone the impact of an ageing population.
Thankfully, the then Immigration Minister Damian Green argued that the OBR report failed to take account of the wider costs of immigration, saying: ‘Uncontrolled migration places unacceptable pressure on the UK’s public services, infrastructure and job market.’
Of course, no one is arguing that the UK should shut its doors to all immigrants. We are the richer for their contribution to our national life. Most of them are hard-working and good people.
It is vital that Britain remain open for business and that higher education should continue to forge international links, but these considerations must be secondary to the vital need to manage population growth.
This priority must be a cross-party issue if the public’s patience is not to wear even thinner. Failure will allow far-Right parties to capture the agenda.
To restore the trust that has been lost, there must be firm steps taken during this week’s Conservative Party Conference. They should be in no doubt that ensuring the cohesion of our society is one of the greatest challenges we now face.
The main political parties must ensure that this becomes an important cross-party concern. Trust in our entire political system is at stake.