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Thursday, March 07, 2013 

Immigration: just the facts, Ma'am.

Panic, as even the slightest glance at recent history attests is infectious, and politicians for their part are just as susceptible as everyone else, if not more so.  Just a few weeks back it seemed as though immigration had dropped down the political agenda, or was at least not the hot button topic it had been in recent years. Cue a few scaremongering articles in the Mail and Express about the imminent flood of Romanians and Bulgarians (for which read gypsies, gangs, organised criminals and foreign scroungers) and the continuing rise in support for UKIP, and suddenly we have politicians of all stripes scrapping over who can be the harshest on the new arrivals and anyone else non-British claiming benefits. It at least makes a slight change from the seemingly constant assaults on British welfare claimants, but not much of one.

The last few weeks have been a great example of how politics often seems to work now.  Our representatives haven't been responding to public concern, as there was little in the way of complaints about immigrants claiming benefits as opposed to immigrants in general, but rather taking a non-issue, massively exaggerating it to the point at which it then does worry the public, and so demands a response.  As Jonathan Portes sets out at length, immigrants overwhelmingly put more in than they take out (they also speak English to a far greater extent than is often claimed). The only real potential problems are the NHS, where it's non-EU migrants and visitors who have been accused of taking advantage, and the issue of child benefit payments going to parents when their children have never even visited this country, and in that instance it works both ways, even if the payments in other EU countries aren't as high.

Due to this, there's not really much point in arguing with the policies outlined by Yvette Cooper today in her speech.  If making the rules on when migrants can claim Jobseeker's Allowance slightly more stringent than they already are reassures some people, then fine.  Much more useful would be a crackdown on those who exploit migrant labour, as Cooper also proposed, but just how many employers or agencies do succeed in not paying the minimum wage is debatable; it's almost certainly not as many as the public suspect and politicians make out.

Much of the attempt by Labour to get back on the front foot is though a waste of time.  Immigration has become one of those issues that regardless of how you approach it, how sensitively it's debated or how many times you repeat the facts, very few minds are changed.  The evidence for the undercutting of wages, for instance, is slight, yet it is repeatedly brought up and complained about, just as it was once a common claim that social housing being taken almost exclusively by black and Asian families.  

In part, this is the legacy of Labour's great cock-up: the failure to put in place initial controls on the 8 accession states in 2005, and the much quoted estimate that only 14,000 migrants would come a year, which was based on the belief that the other EU states would open their borders at the same time when as it turned out only ourselves, Sweden and Ireland did.  Apologising for that mistake is pointless when the effect has turned out to be so massive, as is Cooper's other comment that diversity makes us stronger when she and other politicians then say in the next sentence that immigration must now either be extremely limited or stopped altogether.  Indeed, it achieves exactly the opposite of the effect intended when, as the statistics continue to show, net migration continues to be in the hundreds of thousands.

The only way to tackle the disquiet caused by immigration is to be brutally honest.  Freedom of movement is clearly here to stay, and if anything borders are likely to become ever more open rather than closed, with a few exceptions.  It is the utter hypocrisy on the part of the Western world to say to the poor in developing countries that they must stay where they are while those lucky enough to be born in the West can essentially go wherever they please so long as they have the money to back them.  Moreover, the attempts to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands are likely to damage the economy in both the short and the long term, as we're already seeing with the numbers of foreign students wanting to come here dropping dramatically.  Closing the door to those who take almost nothing out in services whilst putting so much in isn't only phenomenally stupid, it does nothing to help those already here who have either been failed somewhere along the line or for whatever reason find themselves out of work.

This isn't a popular argument currently, it's true, and it's certainly not going to go down well initially.  When though we're still discussing immigration come 2015, when it turns out that the coalition has failed miserably to get the numbers down to the tens of thousands, and when it might well be Labour that are making the running due to that, perhaps some will come to the conclusion that it's about time they stopped treating people like fools and confronted them with the cold hard reality.  It might turn out not to be the vote loser they assume.

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