Migration: time to grow up

6 Jun 08
MELISSA BENN | Gordon Brown is currently besieged with wise advice. Be bold, cut taxes. Be bold, increase taxes. Stand your ground. Give ground.

Gordon Brown is currently besieged with wise advice. Be bold, cut taxes. Be bold, increase taxes. Stand your ground. Give ground.

His greatest act of boldness might be to retain his psychological balance in these pressured times, and abandon an emphasis on presentation — always his weakest link — in favour of substance.

So he could do worse than reflect on the conclusions of a report just out from the research-based think-tank, the Work Foundation. This argues that the UK desperately needs to recruit highly skilled workers in order to remain competitive, not just in private companies but in important parts of the public sector. There is a particular shortage in IT, science, health care and technology. But, the foundation adds, widespread public hostility to immigration threatens to undermine efforts to attract foreign labour.

It’s a familiar conundrum. When I took part in a recent debate on trust in politics, at a packed Corn Exchange in Brighton, the BBC’s Nick Robinson challenged politicians of all parties to risk a ‘grown-up’ debate on immigration.

In the same debate, the ex-MP Oona King, now working at Number 10, suggested that Labour politicians should stay clear of the topic precisely because they know that a majority of the public hold reactionary views. King’s argument was understandable, if not particularly to be admired. On the same day that a major broadsheet respectfully summarised the Work Foundation findings, a popular tabloid had banner headlines about a complex case involving the Home Office and that dreaded ‘m’ word: migrant.

Populists in politics and the media frequently muddy discussion of aslyum seekers — whose numbers have risen 16% since the beginning of the year, with a large jump in the numbers of those fleeing the carnage in Iraq — with the separate issue of attracting workers and skills in areas where they are in short supply.

Incomers are too easily made scapegoats, blamed for scarcity of whatever kind, be it affordable social housing or high-achieving schools. It’s a misperception exaggerated by hard economic times, as reflected in recent victories for the far Right, including the election of several BNP councillors in Stoke-on-Trent.

Brown, sadly, pandered to these more unpleasant undercurrents in our society when, at the brief peak of his popularity last autumn, he talked about ‘British jobs for British workers’ at the Labour Party conference.

Yet in a different political context, the government takes a completely different tack. Giving evidence to a House of Lords economic committee on immigration, chaired by Lord Wakeham, both the government and the CBI stressed the economic benefits of immigration to Britain.

According to the CBI, immigrants contribute £2.5bn to the economy per year. The government went much further, suggesting that immigration was annually worth £6bn. (Both bodies were later ticked off by Wakeham himself for over-optimism and lack of clarity concerning the full effect of migration.) Again, the government and the CBI were in agreement, that to put a cap on the number of new non-European Union migrants would hinder the flexibility of employers and companies when it comes to recruitment.

The Work Foundation agrees. In an April report, it made the case for further managed migration. The argument of its June report is even more urgent: ‘The UK is not sufficiently tapping into the global supply of labour to an extent that would enhance its competitiveness… Britain needs labour.’ (And no, that’s not a political sound bite.)

While the number of international migrants has increased from 86 million in 1975 to 190 million in 2005, this is still a relatively small number compared to the world population. The greatest growth in the international stock of migrants occurred not in the past decade, but between 1985 and 1995.

We are particularly short of workers in the knowledge-intensive industries, those who combine not just high levels of formal education but workplace competencies such as communication and leadership skills, particularly crucial in the endlessly modernising public services. And no, we cannot solve these problems closer to home. Not only are fertility rates declining starkly within Europe, but we have a rapidly ageing population.

The Work Foundation report challenges ministers to make the case for more migration, as recruitment problems grow. The new points-based system, introduced by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in February, is a good start, but still not enough. The government should be more ‘proactive’ and make Britain ‘a more open and attractive’ place for highly skilled foreign labour.

Nick Robinson has a point. It’s time for all politicians to trust the electorate with the complex truth, and to resist the temptation to address different parts of the argument to different parts of the electorate, or the executive. In so doing, of all the main political party leaders, Brown, ironically, now has the least to lose.

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