The subject of immigration looks set to be a major campaign issue in the general election campaign.All of the three main parties seem to be vying with each other as to which can keep the most people out of the country.
The Conservative Party favours quotas, with a seal on the number of migrants who can enter from outside the European Union (EU). Critics have highlighted the impractical nature of this policy for a business that opens or suddenly needs workers with certain skills. If the quota were full then that business could not fill its skills gap and could go to the wall. The Conservatives argue that there will be planning to cover such eventualities but the neo-liberal market which the party so strongly favours does not work that way - it is spontaneous and often unpredictable.The Labour Party favours its points system, only letting in workers with certain skills from beyond the EU. This again is not a favourite with business, which sees it as potentially putting obstacles in the way of it obtaining the requisite skills.
A great deal of recent migration has emanated from the mainly East European new accession countries. It has been the Poles Lithuanians and Slovakians who have made up much of recent migration, though this has lessened as the economy has taken a downturn. The Liberal Democrats favour dispersal of migrants to different parts of the country, with a points based regional policy. This also appears somewhat illogical given that migrants only go to areas where the work exists.
The Liberal Democrats are prepared to let asylum seekers work while in the country, something the other two parties oppose.The far right parties of UKIP and the British National Party further stoke the tenor of the debate on restricting immigration.
The immigration debate generally is a morass of misinformation. The lead off point for the debate should be that inward migration has been good for the economy over the years - it is a positive thing.All the different migrant groups coming into the UK over recent decades - including the Irish, the West Indians and Africans, the Asians and East Europeans - have contributed to the economic well being and cultural diversity of the country.
Economically Britain needs migrants. It is a rapidly ageing population, with the ratio between young and old rapidly changing. University of London academic David Blake found that there needs to be 500,000 immigrant workers coming to the UK to retain the pension at its present levels. The alternatives are higher pension contributions or working longer. The most recent net figure was 163,000 for 2008.
Neither do migrant workers come here to take benefits and jump the housing queue.
Migrants coming here to work do not qualify for benefits. The economy has massively benefited from the inflow of east European migrants recently as many have come to work for a short period, paid taxes and returned home. The majority are single people who have not received the public services that their taxes have gone to fund.
The most authoritative study Social Housing Allocation and Immigrant Communities from the Equality and Human Rights Commission last year found that around 2 per cent of those taking social housing had been in the country less than five years. Nine out of 10 people in this form of housing were born in the UK. Two thirds of those who arrived within the past five years live in private rented accommodation.
The migrants in private rented accommodation are often living in what was council housing before being sold off.
None of these facts effect the myths peddled in much of the right wing media about benefits and housing. These myths have also provided the fertile ground for the BNP and UKIP to exploit. So for example the BNP have been able to campaign in Barking and Dagenham about migrants taking housing and welfare. It turns community against community along race lines.
What is required over the election campaign is a proper open debate on immigration policies. Economic migration needs to be separated from those who come here seeking asylum having fled their home countries. What really does need to happen is to move away from this negative mindset that frames the immigration debate only in terms of reducing the number of people coming into the country. Immigration is in the main a positive thing for all concerned, not a threat to anyone’s way of life.