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Monday, March 25, 2013 

Haven't I heard all this before?

If there's one thing you can say about David Cameron's speech on immigration today, it's that it was clever politics.  It worked on one level, and one level only: that of the tiger repelling rock.  The government knows full well that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians likely to come here next year is going to be nowhere near as high as the numbers that came after the A8 accession states, so setting out a whole range of new "restrictions" makes perfect sense.  We ended the soft touch system we inherited from Labour and look at the results!  It won't matter that the figures overall will still show net migration of hundreds of thousands rather than tens, at least there aren't many of those nasty gyppos or other assorted stereotypes here as we feared, eh?

Other than that, it was just miserable.  It wasn't so much the actual announcements, if you can even call them that, as they were all but identical to those set out by Labour's Yvette Cooper a couple of weeks back with the exception of the requirement for those wanting social housing to have lived locally for at least 2 years.  Even this is undermined by how councils also have a requirement to house those in most need, although naturally Cameron deigned not to mention this.  It was instead that it gave in to every myth, claim and lie we've come to expect from those aiming to profit from scaremongering about immigration: that we're seen as a "soft touch", that the welfare system needs to be reformed alongside immigration itself as it clearly attracts those with no intention of working, and that under Labour immigration was out of control.  All were and are untrue.

It's not that it's wrong to publicise problems with the system, as Cameron said, it's that it's wrong to not challenge the idea that immigrants are here to scrounge rather than work.  Saying that the vast majority are hard workers but then dedicating the remainder of the speech to suggesting there are huge problems rather drowns out the reality.  The emphasis on benefits also spectacularly misses the concerns of most on immigration.  Until very recently, the main concern was not that immigrants from the EU were coming here to claim benefits, it was that they were undercutting wages, stretching the resources of local public services and changing communities beyond recognition.  Cameron today didn't address either the former or the latter, only that there would a renewed emphasis on ensuring employers aren't using illegal immigrants.

Indeed, the major announcement today has been rather buried underneath all the anti-scrounger rhetoric.  The government that ensured ID cards weren't introduced (although they were never going to be after the crash anyway) for us Brits has decided that they're fine and dandy for our friends from the EU should they want to come here, as they'll be the only way of determining just what they're entitled to.  Don't then be surprised if this inevitably leads to the rest of us also needing them at some point in the future.

The problem for Cameron today has turned out that, if anything, he's gone too far even for a press that has always led the way for politicians rather than followed.  The figures we do have suggest that the number of immigrants claiming benefits is low, and that the numbers in social housing are similarly not massively increasing.  On the NHS, ministers simply don't know how much foreign nationals are costing us: it's either £20m or closer to £200m, if we're to believe Jeremy Hunt, which isn't advised.  One suspects it's closer to the £20m figure, but either way it's a drop in the ocean considering the NHS budget is almost £100bn a year, and when as we saw last week George Osborne masterminded an underspend of £2.2bn to help get his borrowing figures in line with the forecasts.

As encouraging as it is that even the Telegraph is calling for politicians to make the case for immigration rather than keep on attempting to woo the UKIP vote (which is, as has been noted, to completely misunderstand UKIP's appeal), we've gone from a situation at the last election where we had at least one party calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, even if they tried to kept it quiet, to that same party fully signing up to the Tories' self-defeating measures.  It seems we are as far away as ever from something approaching an informed debate, let alone an informed policy.

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