Into the unknown

By Sir Andrew Green, Chairman, Migration Watch UK

© Copyright of Sir Andrew Green
Article for Daily Mail. 1 May 2004

Today 10 more countries join the EU. It should be a cause for celebration - but the shambles of Britain’s immigration policy has tainted this historic moment.

TODAY is the day the barriers come down - all of them. From this point on, 75 million East Europeans will be able to travel freely throughout the European Union.

The good news is that this is a strategic success of historic proportions. For over a decade we have been free of the Soviet threat and the 20 East European divisions which, in a purely conventional war, would have made mincemeat of Nato forces in a matter of days. Our only answer was the nuclear deterrent with all the risks which that entailed.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union left the satellite states adrift, their economies devastated and their politics in a vacuum. These countries are now to be firmly anchored in the EU.

What is more, this has been secured with the acquiescence of Russia, always a massive player in the affairs of Europe. As a result, Europe is more stable and Britain is more secure.

Yet, out of the jaws of this victory our Government has snatched only dissension and dismay. Why? Because they have made an appalling mess of the immigration aspect, the issue that touches the public most directly.

With foreign immigration already at the highest level in our history and with congestion, especially in the South-East, impinging heavily on their daily lives, the British people are saying that enough is enough.

At first, ministers simply didn’t see the problem. They published absurdly low estimates of the likely number of immigrants from Eastern Europe. They insisted that 13,000 a year was the maximum. In fact, those numbers were already arriving and a similar number were being turned away at our borders every year.

Surely, they knew this. Indeed, Migrationwatch UK, the think-tank of which I am chairman, challenged their estimate last August. But they chose to stick with their original figure until Home Secretary David Blunkett hastily backed away from it during a recent Commons debate.

As realisation dawned that there could be a serious problem, our Government remained paralysed while Sweden, Denmark and Holland placed restrictions on their labour markets. Only in Britain and Ireland will they also be able to work without restriction.

After a vigorous Press campaign ministers finally recognised that they had to act - if only to prevent benefit tourism. They have now tightened the regulations but we cannot be sure that they have done enough to deter those more interested in benefits than in work.

So will East Europeans come flooding in? With a population of 38 million, Poland - which I visited last week - accounts for half the newcomers to the EU.

Their standard of living is less than half the European average and there is unemployment of about 20 per cent. Obviously, this could be a recipe for substantial migration.

I talked to travel agents, recruitment firms and bus companies. There was no evidence of an instant rush. This is partly because the word on the street has long been that British immigration officers can turn you back at Dover and oblige you to return home at your own expense.

After decades of life under a communist bureaucracy, Poles are understandably nervous of officialdom. They also have strong family ties. Most would far prefer to stay at home - if they could find work. But the urge to travel is undoubtedly there.

A recent opinion poll found that 47 per cent of Polish students would like to emigrate, although this may have more to do with their frustration at poor prospects for finding work at home.

Nevertheless, I met several students who already had a number of friends and acquaintances in Britain. It seems that they have come to earn money working in bars or in the fields and to improve their English. Most will go home before long.

This is entirely harmless - indeed it is very much to Britain’s interest that the new countries of Europe should want to learn English.

The issue of numbers will only arise if the less skilled start to move. There is a town in Eastern Poland where a quarter of the population now work in Brussels, and from those I talked
to it was clear that the presence of friends and relatives in the Belgian capital had been a great encouragement in the early stages.

One man who had been a Polish ‘pioneer’ in Brussels said that, with the British labour market opening shortly, he intended to try his luck here before long.

Other East European countries may be different but, if Poland is any guide, the likely prospect is that expat communities in Britain will build up as more people realise that the border is open and there are prospects of work at wages far higher than back home.

Of course, nobody knows what will happen in the next few months. It could go relatively smoothly. Or it could go pear-shaped quite quickly.

Perhaps it was the prospect of the latter that prompted the Prime Minister to make what seemed to be a very hasty speech to the Confederation of British Industry this week.

We have reached the ‘crunch point’ on immigration, he said in this, his first speech on this vital subject since he came to office in 1997. And he at last promised a ‘top to bottom’ review of the immigration system.

He also had the grace to admit that concerns about immigration were not just a figment of racist imagination.

Well, which crunch was he talking about? The crunch today as the EU expands to the East? The crunch as Government evasion of this issue finally collides with a massive tide of public opinion? Or the crunch as the Government’s credibility tumbles around them?

The thrust of the Prime Minister’s speech was that the British people can accept migration that is controlled and selective. But the present process is neither controlled, nor selective. Even if it were, acceptance would depend on the scale of the immigration involved.

Astonishingly, Mr Blair made no mention of scale - all too aware perhaps that net foreign immigration has reached nearly a quarter of a million per year and has more than doubled since he took office.

Does he share David Blunkett’s view that ‘there is no obvious upper limit to legal migration’? Does the Government have a policy at all? It would be good to know. It matters a great deal.

Since the early Nineties, immigration has, for the first time in recent history, been adding to our population.

Allowing for the British people who leave every year, we are now, on average, adding 150,000 to our population annually. The Government, for reasons which it has failed satisfactorily to explain, believes that this flow will drop to 103,000 a year.

Even on that assumption, the Government’s projections show that the population of the UK will grow by 5.6 million in the next three decades. That is about five times the population of Birmingham and 85 per cent will be due to new immigration.

On present patterns - and the Government’s own figures - three quarters will settle in London and the South-East.

Why was this key element omitted from Mr Blair’s speech? Has nobody told the Prime Minister about the consequences of his inattention over the past seven years?

Mr Blair commented that ‘immigration has suddenly become very high on the agenda’. He did not say why - but the reason is clear. People have lost confidence in his Government’s ability to control immigration. A firm and fair immigration policy has long been fundamental to good community relations.

Yet, nowadays, very few believe the Government. A recent poll showed that 75 per cent do not think ministers are being open and honest on the subject.

Regrettably, the Prime Minister’s speech was no exception. Having evaded the central issue of scale, his case, albeit wafer-thin, was based on a careful selection of the facts.

He quoted a Treasury calculation that our economic growth rate would be almost 0.5 per cent lower for the next two years if net immigration ceased. What he did not say is that the key measure is not the total size of the economy. Obviously, this will increase if you add to the workforce but what really matters is wealth per head.

All major studies have shown that the effect of large-scale immigration on wealth per head is very small. The National Research Council, a leading American research institute, put it at about one-tenth of one per cent per year - a trivial amount. This is obviously no justification for immigration on the present scale, which adds still further to the strain on our housing and public services.

Then we were told about the strict controls on work permits. There was no mention of yet another government target - that 90 per cent of applications should be approved within 24 hours of receipt.

Just how effective can such checks be - especially when, in many countries, you can buy such documents as you need?

Even then, fewer than one in five of those granted settlement in 2002 came here for the purpose of work. So much for selective immigration.

On to the irrelevant statistic that ‘only’ eight per cent of our workforce is foreign-born compared to 15 per cent in the United States and 25 per cent in Australia.

Is the Prime Minister unaware that these are, historically, countries of immigration. Or rather, they are continents of immigration.

On our small island, England is already 12 times as densely populated as the U.S., and we are a close second to Holland as the most crowded country in Europe. Indeed, England is now more crowded than India.

Overseas nurses and teachers were bound to figure in Mr Blair’s speech. Nobody would seek to diminish the valuable contribution that they continue to make (although one might ask why the Government has consistently failed to train and retain British staff).

The point is, however, that this is no argument for massive levels of further immigration. But once again we heard the claim that there are half a million jobs in Britain waiting to be filled. No mention of the 2.2 million who would like to work and whom the Government wishes to move from welfare to work.

Added to this there are 1.5 million unemployed. Together they make about 3.7 million - or more than seven times the number of vacancies. In any case, you need vacancies to be available if people are to be able to change jobs; half a million is not a particularly high level of vacancies.

I nearly forgot the history lesson Mr Blair gave us, designed to suggest that immigration has gone on throughout history so there is nothing new about it. Well there is.

Again it is the scale. Mr Blair mentioned the success of the East African Asians. Nobody doubts that, nor the wider contribution they have made to our society. But they were only about 27,000 spread over a couple of years or so.

We are now taking nine times that number every year.

Such were the Prime Minister’s facts. They do not remotely amount to a serious case for large scale immigration.

Fortunately, the public has quite enough common sense to work this out for themselves. Nor are they convinced by the Government’s claim to have immigration under control.

When Mr Blair spoke of the 220,000 people who were refused visas in 2002, he did not mention the 1.5 million visas that were issued, nor the fact that nobody checks these people in or out of Britain. This explains why David Blunkett ‘hasn’t a clue’ who is in this country.

The Prime Minister also described the Government’s efforts to tighten the asylum system. These are entirely laudable but there was no mention of the House of Commons report which pointed out that only one in five failed asylum seekers is actually removed.

The result is that anyone who sets foot in this country and claims asylum has a nearly 90 per cent chance of staying on indefinitely, the majority illegally.

The reality is that our border controls have been crumbling for a decade. The same applies to the Government’s efforts to prevent illegal working.

Last year, only one employer was successfully prosecuted.

So the Government’s case crumples when examined. They do indeed face a crunch, several crunches. They are heavily exposed on Eastern Europe. They are flying in the face of public opinion, of whom 80 per cent wish to see much tighter control of immigration, meaning much lower numbers.

And its credibility is in pieces.

It will take more than selected facts and half measures to put a serious policy together - one which has both a clear aim and the support of all sections of our society.

Sir Andrew Green is a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria.

 © Copyright of Sir Andrew Green
The Daily Mail, London, May 1, 2004

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