Celebrate the movement of people within secure borders says Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron MP

July 31, 2016 3:25 PM

For hundreds of years, migration has enriched our language, culture and society, and has helped to drive innovation, productivity and economic growth. Over the decades, we've seen ebbs and flows in how many people come into the UK, but over the last decade, due in large part to the adoption of free movement of people in the European Union, we have seen sustained higher levels of immigration. Sadly, misreporting and exaggeration by some politicians, pressure groups and sections of the press have turned this debate toxic, with immigrants blamed for all the ills of the country. This culminated in immigration playing a central though bogus and misrepresented role in the EU referendum debate, and following the narrow Leave vote, there is a bigger responsibility than ever for sensible, progressive politicians to frame the arguments in favour of immigration in a way that first acknowledges genuine concerns and then seeks to address them. There are challenges posed by high levels of immigration, and we should address them positively, not ignore them.

A quick glance at national polls in the early part of this year - before the referendum debate got into full swing - shows that most people consider immigration to be the biggest challenge facing the country at the moment. However, it is striking that when people are asked what challenges face them and their family, immigration concerns drop out almost completely. Most people are scared of the abstract principle, rather than because they feel the impact of any problems themselves.

Some of this has been to do with the pressures behind the EU referendum, but it is very unlikely that it will change. People will still come to the UK from overseas, whether under freedom of movement within the EU (in the short term) or migration from anywhere in the world. We will still face many challenges, and the fact that the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is expected to be three times bigger in 2016 than it was in 2015 will ensure that the issue will not go quietly away. Too often progressives have resorted to burying their heads in the sand and hoping nobody asks about immigration on the doorstep or in media interviews, or, worse, defaulting to the easy attack of implying that everyone with worries about immigration is stupid or bigoted. It is high time for progressive politicians to take a fresh approach that address the concerns head-on. We need to have positive solutions and a clear vision.

Progressives need to be making the positive case for immigration. There are many reasons and arguments for this. Firstly, a very simple view - immigrants are people too. They deserve opportunity and freedoms. This applies especially strongly to those seeking asylum. We know that people driven from their homes as a result of war and persecution deserve our help and support. The British public are at heart fair-minded people, and just as there was mass support for the Kindertransport, to save thousands of innocent children from the horrors of Nazi Germany, so we must muster support for the millions displaced from Syria and elsewhere. Of course we cannot house all of them, but then not all want to be housed - most just want to be able to go and live in their homes in peace. But we can make a difference to many thousands of people who need our help.

So there is a clear moral case for immigration - and for many of us that is compelling. But we should also not be afraid to make other, more pragmatic cases - especially to persuade those unmoved by the moral arguments. We should be comfortable highlighting the benefits immigration brings to those of us already here. We should demonstrate that self-interest and generosity are in this case aligned. We need only to look to the National Health Service to see how important immigration is - statistics produced by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) showed that, in 2014, 26 per cent of NHS doctors were non-British, and the British Medical Association have been clear that, without immigrants, 'many NHS services would struggle to provide effective care to their patients'. With an ageing population placing more pressure on the NHS, immigrants will be instrumental going forward.

The challenge for progressive politicians is to formulate and articulate an immigration policy that makes the most of the many benefits of immigration while reassuring British nationals that the overall balance is right. Changes to the current rules will happen as a result of the EU referendum - progressives need to use what influence they have to ensure that the new system is fair to everyone. Sadly, there are those who exploit the rules - we must be robust in tackling labour exploitation and those who abuse the spirit of Britain's willingness to welcome people from abroad.

Migration does not benefit everyone equally

A good place to start is to accept that, without certain policies in place, immigration does not benefit everyone equally, all the time. Much like trade, the overall economic benefit of immigration is indisputable, but that does not automatically equate to better circumstances for all. Current policies in the UK combine with immigration to make life harder for some people.

The cry 'immigrants take our jobs' is crude and reductionist, but, as is the case with the trade of British versus Chinese steel, ultimately capitalism is driven by competition, and immigration introduces more competition into the labour market at the same time as it fills its holes. As the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) highlights, where immigrants do compete with the native work force, it tends to be a very localised problem and very much dependent on the specific industry of the area (MAC, 2015). This is supported by research by Christian Dustmann from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London, which shows that while the majority of workers are either unaffected by migrant labour or positively affected, there is a negative impact on those with the lowest incomes. Often this is not because most migrants are low-skilled themselves, but because educational attainment and work experience do not translate well across borders, meaning many migrants find themselves 'downskilling' on arrival in the UK. Thus, when an employer has the choice of a British employee with low level skills or an immigrant with greater skills who is willing to take lower-paid work, the British worker is likely to lose out.

So how can we make sure that migrants in the labour market do not undercut local wages or lead to the exploitation of workers by paying under minimum wage?

Proper enforcement of the minimum wage is vital. The Gangmasters' Licencing Authority has done excellent work in this area - clamping down on unscrupulous businesses and helping exploited workers. Increased penalties for those who break the law, which came in as part of the Immigration Act that passed through Parliament in early 2016, are welcome. This is especially important given that the government is set to increase the minimum wage in this parliament. Without sufficient safeguarding, there is a serious risk that more companies will seek ways to prevent having to pay the increased rate. This method also creates a more predictable tax revenue from both native and foreign-born workers, and diminishes the risk of exploitation of other regulations, such as those around health and safety.

Further research by CReAM shows that most migrants only stay downskilled for a short period of time - often it's just two or three years before they move on to higher-skilled placements. This means the low-skilled, low-paid part of the job market remains constantly busy. This trend could be mitigated by stronger policies around transference of qualifications between countries and sufficient investment in English language education. This first suggestion is especially critical when you consider the currently increasing holes in our labour market. In 2013, the so-called skills gap was particularly problematic in science, technology, engineering and maths ('Stem') industries, with an estimated shortfall of 30,000 graduates per year (CEBR, 2013). Where businesses can be confident that foreign educated workers have the transferable qualifications, they can hire them into those roles immediately and avoid any unnecessary pile-up in other parts of the job market.

It is also worth emphasising at this point that we cannot continue to allow high-skilled immigration to make up for the continual failure to equip British people with the education needed to fill this shortfall themselves. More needs to be done to ensure that our school system gives children the best start in life, and that it is accessible to those at all stages of life who wish to train for higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs. The coalition made enormous leaps forward in increasing apprenticeships in the 2010-15 period, and this should be built on further. Immigration should complement the skilled workforce we already have in Britain, not replace it.

One huge tragedy in UK immigration policy is the way that some of those on the right have attacked non-EU migrants excessively. New rules that came into force in April 2016 will see the majority of Tier 2 visa immigrants from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) having to earn £35,000 or more to qualify for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) - a move that will significantly impact immigrant teachers, nurses, scientists and IT professionals. It is possible that such rules will apply to immigrants from the EEA once Britain leaves the EU. Meanwhile, British citizens are separated from their wives or husbands, if they hold foreign passports, if the British partner earns below £18,600. Or, to put that another way, almost half of the British population do not earn enough to fall in love with a foreigner. This is cruel and unBritish.

The right are obsessed with having a debate about numbers of migrants, which is a fight they cannot win without severely damaging our economy in the process. Until now, these measures could be applied to workers who come to the UK from within the European Union, so they have chosen to hit non-EU workers much harder and more brutally. With Britain's exit from the EU imminent, everyone from overseas stands to be treated with equal brutality. Such proposals do very little to ease pressure on the low-income labour market, while simultaneously having a negative impact on our universities and high-tech industries - and our humanity.

The myth of diluted welfare

Another topic that has dominated the debate on immigration is the notion that British citizens are benefiting less from the welfare state as a result of migrants coming here to receive state handouts. In many ways, this narrative is the fault of politicians, who have realised that tweaking welfare access for migrants is something that has very little impact but which is populist and within their ability to effect. Various parties have set their standards at different levels and use this as an easy policy to point to when attempting to prove they are strong when dealing with immigration. The most recent example of this was the current government's EU renegotiation plan, which included measures that would be used to deny EU migrants access to in-work benefits for four years. Despite what this race for longer waiting periods suggests, there is little evidence to prove that benefits are a 'pull-factor' for migrants to choose Britain, and consequently that making people wait longer for in-work benefits is in any way a deterrent.

People do rightly raise concerns about limits on housing, on school places, and on the NHS. And they are right to do so - these are problems in many areas. But the solution to a shortage of school places is to expand schools or build new ones, not to blame the migrants that are coming here to contribute to society. They should not be blamed for government incompetence.

Decades of failure to build sufficient housing, to provide adequate school places and to properly fund our NHS were exposed by the economic crisis in 2008, allowing migrants to become a convenient scapegoat for what had been a system left to crumble. Migration tends to be predictable, with areas of rapid population growth easily identifiable. However, it is surprisingly difficult to find localised information on migration and therefore difficult to analyse how immigration actually impacts on local services. The census is the only standardised model of collecting this data at the moment, but once a decade is not frequent enough to make use of the information for proper community planning. High priority should be given to developing mechanisms that take better account of pressures on public services in local areas facing rapid inward migration. And where pressures are identified, sufficient resources should be allocated to relieve them. In fact, the European Union has specific funding available for this, the European Social Fund, but the option of such funds being tapped and spent in areas where public services are strained has now gone with the Brexit vote. Calculations made by the Liberal Democrats in 2013 estimated the UK would be eligible for £1 billion from the ESF. This would not simply have assisted new provision for new residents, but would have been a genuine investment of help for the whole neighbourhood and community.

If we accept the overwhelming evidence that immigration - from the EU and elsewhere - is good for our economy and, indeed, sustains our welfare system by reducing the ratio of workers to non-workers, we must ensure that we invest in using that strong economy to benefit all people. This is why progressives were in favour of Britain remaining in the EU - because freedom of movement helps our economy. Research by CReAM showed that over the period from 2001 to 2011, European immigrants contributed more than £20 billion to UK public finances. We can use that money to support public services like schools and hospitals in the areas where immigration is happening - and still leave more left over. Part of any progressive ethos should be to ensure that as much freedom of movement is protected as possible, and we have the example of Norway as a country that is outside the EU but has signed up to freedom of movement.

Another look at the polling reveals that the other big issue that concerns people is the economy, and evidence in a couple of our close European neighbours, Denmark and the Netherlands, shows that populist anti-immigrant policies can soon become less popular when clampdowns on immigration do start to have an economic impact.

A programme for positive migration

It is the job of progressive politicians - both during and after the period when Britain's exit from the EU is negotiated - to set out a programme for positive migration, one that voters can see is credible and works for them. This vision should be based on four things I have identified above:
* Positive and clear language about the overall benefits we get from immigration.
* Understanding and reacting to the genuine concerns of those parts of the population who feel threatened by mass migration.
* Clear and strong control of borders that allows better management and more precise information about migratory trends.
* Separating out asylum from the immigration debate as far as possible.

We should not shy away from the fact that we want to maintain control of immigration - this is not an issue just for the right. We need to show that progressives are just as concerned about, and willing to invest in, secure and well-managed borders. This means handing powers currently with the government back to Parliament. It should be Parliament that decides and votes on what measures are needed each year to ensure that we are open for business to the best and brightest, and those who want to contribute, while maintaining control to keep us safe, secure and prosperous. It would be naive to insinuate that by handing this over to Parliament rather than the government we can deflate the political football that migration has become; however, by embracing independent advice and allowing for lengthy and intelligent parliamentary debate, we can at least help to mitigate the spin and force Members of Parliament to come face to face with the facts.

In addition, we should proudly say that we are open for business and growth without being blind to public concern. This concern stems from fear, and that can only be fought by raising the UK workforce's confidence, and showing that we are investing in 'UK plc' not at the expense of losing foreign talent but in conjunction with it. Apprenticeship schemes in the UK have proved to be hugely successful and there is no reason that these could not be extended so that an element of the 'training up' of the native workforce is included as an element of the visa requirements for highly skilled migrants coming to the UK. By highlighting the tangible benefits migration brings and creating people-to-people links, we can strengthen our hand as well as strengthening our economy. Progressives are well placed to make this argument that unites opportunity and economic interests.

Finally, it is the job of progressives to ensure that we do not allow immigration and asylum to get confused. We have seen that the general public sympathise with the plight of genuine asylum seekers; however, all too often politicians and the media confuse - whether on purpose or not - asylum seekers and economic migrants. We need to continually and robustly fight against this conflation and this will mean fighting for further separation of the systems. For example, the indefinite detention of asylum seekers paints these innocent people as criminals. It is our duty to not only help dispel these myths when we speak out but also to seek change in legislation to ensure that our asylum system is humane and treats these people in accordance with the demands of international law.

Anti-immigration rhetoric has been an easy win for the political right, and if progressives in politics hope to prevail, it is time to meet the challenge head-on and reclaim the debate. Though our exit from the EU is deeply regrettable, it means the immigration debate can become clearer, in that the right can no longer shamelessly blame the EU. This is therefore an opportunity, but one that will require us to address the real fears behind the rhetoric, like jobs, communities and welfare.