Opinion: as Labour and the Conservatives play “Find the Lady” on immigration, what are we to do?

I must admit that the whole immigration debate bemuses me. As Labour and the Conservatives compete for the prize of being ‘not quite as tough on migrants as UKIP want to be’, some of my fellow Liberal Democrats respond by only talking of the benefits of migration, making the mistake of assuming that there is a rational debate to be had there.

The problem is that there isn’t – not now, at least. Instead, I suggest a different approach – holding the other three parties to account over their proposals. You see, I have concluded that most of the proposals will have little, or no, effect, or will have serious, damaging repercussions. Others will be impossible to implement, or be horribly expensive. Besides, they shouldn’t be allowed to pull the wool over the eyes of the British voter, should they?

So, when UKIP state that “measures would be taken to identify illegal immigrants and remove them to their country of origin”, perhaps they might like to explain what those measures might be? It can’t involve ID cards, because they’re against them. And, given that nobody knows how many illegal immigrants there are, what might be involved in doing this, and at what cost? How, indeed, would that cost be met?

Labour might like to explain what the impact of restricting freedom of movement within the European Union might be, given that Chuka Umunna believes that other EU citizens shouldn’t be allowed to come here to do ‘low-skilled jobs’. He might want to define ‘low-skilled’ as a starting point, before telling us how many people from outside the UK hold such jobs now, and whether or not they could be replaced by a British workforce? He might even explain how those on benefits might be persuaded to take such jobs.

And the Conservatives might like to confirm the number of EU nationals claiming benefits within three months of their arrival, or even two years, and the cost to the public purse, as well as the amount of money paid in benefits by other EU states to UK nationals living in them, so that we can see the scale of the problem.

What do these three policies have in common? A desire to avoid the real problems of our immigration system, because doing something that actually makes a difference is difficult. So, making sure that people are checked as they leave the country would give us a much better idea as to the scale of overstayers, key to quantifying the problem of illegal immigrants. Resourcing the Home Office so that it can deal with its backlog properly, and keep new cases up to date would be very useful too, yet that doesn’t appear to be under discussion.

A points-based system for non-EU migrants seems like a good idea, as it appears to work in other countries. Yes, you do need to understand that a fixed ceiling isn’t very clever, as you might end up keeping people out that British employers really need, but it’s far more simple, and honest, than setting a target that is part-dependent on something you can’t control, such as a net immigration figure.

So, I urge liberals to get involved in the immigration debate, but not by talking about concepts that don’t resonate, by talking about what can be done and how. Very few people believe in a laissez-faire approach to migration policy, not even most Liberal Democrats, but if we’re going to treat the British public like adults, we might start with some hard truths.

* Mark Valladares is an ethnic minority member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team and believes in process.

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28 Comments

  • “… some of my fellow Liberal Democrats respond by talking of the benefits of migration, making the mistake of assuming that there is a rational debate to be had there.”

    So your answer is to give up trying to be rational, and instead conform to the anti-immigration agenda, simply criticising the other parties’ proposals for being ineffective and/or impractical?

  • It is good to have an open debate. I believe a points based system will work for non-EU migrants though there is of course, a fundamental market-driven question mark over some types of EU migration. There is no doubt in my mind that a few EU migrants come here without a job and that these do tend to act as a drain on the economy and scarce resources. The numbers doing so may be over-estimated; (I don’t know); but as such, they surely do generate some net cost to taxpayers. I think that preventing this situation does require a fundamental change in policy.

  • The LibDems should be pushing for us to join Schengen, asap. It’s ridiculous that we spend billions on pointless checks. We’re not Australia and we don’t need their farcical points system. We’re a member state of the European Union.

  • We’ve had a points-based immigration system for non-EU workers since 2008. Of course the Coalition has also added caps since then.

  • Mark Valladares :
    Two points
    “And, given that nobody knows how many illegal immigrants there are, what might be involved in doing this, and at what cost? How, indeed, would that cost be met?”
    I suppose we could have used the same logic dealing with MP’s and their expenses? It must have been damn expensive re-checking expense forms, investigations, public enquiries, legal prosecutions, setting up of another Quango (IPSA). As per your logic, it would have been far cheaper to let the illegality and fraud continue, and let MP’s dip their hand in the till as and when they saw fit, because keeping check on them is as you say, “…horribly expensive..”?

    “So, when UKIP state that “measures would be taken to identify illegal immigrants and remove them to their country of origin”, perhaps they might like to explain what those measures might be? It can’t involve ID cards, because they’re against them.”
    Do you need ID cards to track illegal’s. You can probably live here illegally, and as an individual ‘in the shadows’, for many years. However anyone who expects to get married, have children, send them to school, access health services, drive a car, get a job that incurs PAYE, (in other words, have a normal life), sooner or later will have to ‘interface’, with local authority, health and public services generally.
    In an increasingly interconnected world, illegal immigration often pops up as a secondary offence, to some other criminality uncovered.. One example (of many), to expand the point.
    There is increasing interconnection between DVLA, MOT service providers, Motor Insurers etc., that you have to deal with, in order to drive a car legally. A simple speeding violation, caught on a roadside camera, will, (and does!), flag up whether the car is legitimately taxed, insured, MOT’d etc., and frequently, whether the driver is of dubious origin. In an increasingly interconnected world ‘shadow living’, which illegal’s often do, is becoming ever more restricted.

  • I think in order to have a really clever debate about immigration, we need to actually admit the glaringly obvious truth: that the official figures show that there are a heck of a lot of people coming to the UK from both Southern Europe and Eastern Europe and that it is having a big effect on wage levels and competition for jobs. That is why there has been no upturn in wage inflation during this recovery despite a booming jobs market, in contrast to previous recoveries, because this is the first one when workers have flooded in from the rest of Europe. If you don’t believe me, look at the figures for National Insurance registrations over the past few years:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/233032/nino-statistical-bulletin-aug-13.pdf

    We then need to explain to UK citizens how we are going to help them compete on a fair basis and with all the support possible in terms of training, skills, education etc. for the jobs that there are. We also need to be looking at ways of ensuring that the jobs on offer are decent ones, and not just unreliable zero-hours ones.

    Any other approach, including the frankly silly and unjustifiable denial that a massive influx of workers has any effect at all on the UK labour market, would be dishonest and will not go down well with the voters. Can’t we just have the courage to tell them the truth for once, but to deal with it head on and in a practical, level-headed manner?

  • Paul in Twickenham 12th Jan '14 - 4:42pm

    Did you see the article in The Observer today about a MORI poll of 2224 people, indicating that 29% of people now feel “optimistic” about the year ahead, compared with 9% in 2012?

    I mention it because of what seemed to me to be a fascinating BTL comment: “The views of 2,224 people, whoopee doo.” This gets 53 “recommends”, compared with this response: “Are you seriously saying you don’t know how polling works?” which gets 35 “recommends”.

    I do not expect that the 53 readers who clicked “recommend” are so foolish as to think that the comment is anything other than nonsense, but it shows the degree of deliberate self-delusion that people will engage in when presented with facts.

    The only strategy I can see is to follow Jo Grimond’s sage advice and “march towards the sound of gunfire” . You certainly don’t win support for your position by sounding apologetic and ceding ground to UKIP before the debate even starts, as Mr. Clegg did this morning.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Jan '14 - 5:04pm

    Believe in gradual liberalisation? Very gradual, if it means getting elected.

  • Julian Dean 12th Jan '14 - 5:54pm

    Wait for the tories to throw the stick and fetch I suppose.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 12th Jan '14 - 6:47pm

    @ Chris,

    What could be more rational than to get someone to explain how their ideas will work, and what the impact of them will be? Politics is about testing ideas, not just espousing them, to see what might be done, how and why. I’ve touched upon some of the Liberal Democrat ideas in my last paragraph because, I accept, you can’t just focus on your opponents, you have to have some ideas too.

    @ Theresa-1,

    My high school maths teacher told me that using the word ‘surely’ in any debate is a sign that you don’t really know. And you don’t know, as you acknowledge. But is a fundamental change of policy required if we don’t know the scale of the problem?

    @ John Dunn,

    I’m asking a question of UKIP policy, which you aren’t answering. Is the cost of the action that UKIP propose proportionate to the costs that migrants generate by being here? You don’t know, and nor do I, but comparing migrants to MPs isn’t much of a comparison. But, since you mention it, IPSA costs £5 million a year to run, as I understand it, yet the sum total of suspect and improper claims was about £1 million, most of which should have been addressed by the existing system of rules. Why weren’t the rules properly applied then?

    But, returning to the measures that UKIP would take, what you describe are not measures, they are inevitabilities based on existing practice, so you effectively suggest that UKIP would do nothing that isn’t already being done. So, go on, why don’t you, detail some of these measures that UKIP are calling for?

  • “What could be more rational than to get someone to explain how their ideas will work, and what the impact of them will be?”

    I think you know I was referring to the part of your article that said “some of my fellow Liberal Democrats respond by talking of the benefits of migration, making the mistake of assuming that there is a rational debate to be had there.”

    If that doesn’t mean you think it’s a mistake to try to engage in rational debate, what does it mean?

  • @ Mark Valladares “But is a fundamental change of policy required if we don’t know the scale of the problem?”

    OK I accept that point but if we truly do not know the scale of the problem then I believe that is a fundamental failure of government. Can we just agree that no matter which party is in government it should do its homework and work out the figures

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 12th Jan '14 - 9:57pm

    @ RC,

    As I understand it, a significant pool of unemployed, as still exists, has a depressive effect on wage inflation, as there are more people chasing jobs than there are positions to fill. But, whilst the data supports your assertion that a significant number of Southern and Eastern European nationals are coming here to work, it is less clear that they are displacing Britons from the workplace. The media frequently report stories of companies recruiting elsewhere in the EU because they can’t get locals to do the jobs available, and I suggest that there are a range of, sometimes complex, factors that are in play.

    I agree that we need to equip our people with the skills necessary to compete in the modern workplace, but there are plenty of unskilled, semi-skilled or unglamorous jobs that need doing, and someone is going to have to do them. If we won’t, who will? So, you need to define decent, and explain how you are going to ensure that locals can get them, otherwise you’re being no more honest than anyone else.

    @ Paul in Twickenham,

    I tend to agree that Nick could handle this better, but that may be because of the bruising he took during the General Election on the question of migration policy. I thought that it offered a pragmatic way forward, but given the response of our opponents and the media, and the sense that it hurt us in terms of votes, one might understand why he might not be so keen to take another kicking.

    @ Chris,

    I write of the notion that migration is wholly positive. It is, if you have the skills and attitude to make use of it, but too many of our people don’t see it the same way. Years of media and political indoctrination have convinced them that Europe is scary, they don’t have the language skills to compete in a foreign job market, and they see migration as something that is one-way, not two-way. Explaining to them how wonderful freedom of movement is without some recognition of why they might be alarmed is naive, to my mind, and is unlikely to coax them from that view. The argument has to be far more wide-ranging than that.

    I’m not aware that you’ve done much political campaigning, and therefore you might not have much experience of dealing with strangers on the doorstep – feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. But, from my personal experience, and I wouldn’t describe myself as a hardened campaigner, quite often people hold seemingly irrational views for all sorts of reasons, and it takes time and effort, often face to face, to persuade them to move from them. Most campaigning doesn’t allow for that sort of relationship building, and when the loudest voices are competing for the extremes, it can be an uphill struggle.

    So, you have to talk to people where they are, rather than shout from where you want them to be, in the hope that you can persuade them that ‘over there’ is much better.

    @ Theresa-1,

    Agreed, which is why we really need to deal with the fundamentals first – enable the data to be more accurate, resource the processes appropriately, enforce the rules that already exist – before deciding that we need to take actions that probably won’t help, and might very well hurt.

  • “I’m not aware that you’ve done much political campaigning, and therefore you might not have much experience of dealing with strangers on the doorstep – feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.”

    You’re completely wrong.

  • “… the sense that it hurt us in terms of votes …”

    And of course this is the nub of it. But the sad irony is that after several years of the party ditching its principles for fear that they might “hurt it in terms of votes”, it finds itself at 10% in the polls because no one knows what it stands for!

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Jan '14 - 11:05pm

    “The media frequently report stories of companies recruiting elsewhere in the EU because they can’t get locals to do the jobs available”
    During episode of Dirty Britain on TV this evening – I wasn’t paying full attention but I think it referred to around 50% of the cleaning jobs in Britain being done by people not born here.

  • @Chris: Yes.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 13th Jan '14 - 12:41am

    @ Chris,

    I stand corrected on the point of your political campaigning experience, although I would be intrigued to hear some of your doorstep stories.

    I for one would be quite happy to campaign on the basis of our stated policy in the 2010 General Election, as I still believe that the idea of providing illegal immigrants with a pathway towards regularising their status to be a good thing. I merely note that Nick might not be so keen to take another pounding.

    But, by all means, do keep on taking quotes out of context…

  • “some of my fellow Liberal Democrats respond by only talking of the benefits of migration, making the mistake of assuming that there is a rational debate to be had there.”

    If they are only talking about the benefits without talking about the costs then it is they who are being irrational and leading the debate towards polarisation. A rational discussion weighs up the benefits and costs (wage suppression, increased housing, health & education infrastructure demands, etc). David Allen wrote a balanced article the other day and was responded to with hostility by numerous people who see the debate in such polarised terms as immigration ‘good’.

  • Agree with Steve 13/1 7:20.If we look at the whole balance-sheet of migratnts, including the cost of providing increased school provision for the children, is the balance of advantage really there?

  • “If they are only talking about the benefits without talking about the costs then it is they who are being irrational and leading the debate towards polarisation.”

    As they’re not only talking about the benefits, the point is academic.

  • Paul In Twickenham 13th Jan '14 - 9:39am

    I do find myself wondering who exactly has a low-skill job? Anyone on minimum wage? The person who cleans the office toilet? The checkout person in my local Sainsbury’s? The John Lewis delivery man? The postman? The opposition spokesman at the department of business, innovation and skills? Me?

    Perhaps Mr. Umunna could help me by listing all “low-skill” jobs that need to be protected from the Bulgarian hordes.

  • Chris Holman 13th Jan '14 - 3:01pm

    European immigration is just the symptoms of the real problem.

    The real problem is that our Education system is not educating our children well enough for the world of work not give them the skill that employers need and in some section of the school population do not seem to be promoting any sense of a “work ethic” . If it was we would not have she skill shortages that prompts employers to seek qualified & skilled personnel from Europe.

    Conversely, while we have a large pool of unemployed who have no qualifications or skills, virtually all people employed in manual harvesting of vegetables and in the blossoming trade in car hand washes are not of white UK origins.

  • Andrew Colman 13th Jan '14 - 6:31pm

    I have been listening to the debate over immigration including last weeks BBC programme and I still do not have a viable answer to “What is wrong with immigration”. Even ex Labour ministers say they were wrong to let in the poles in 2004. But why?

    Housing shortages and unemployment have been blamed on immigration but there are much more credible explanations for these problems. House prices more than doubled over the period 1997-2007 whilst immigration over the decade was 1 or 2% of the population, hardly a plausible cause. A far more likely cause is a bubble created by lenders, estate agents , surveyors all making fortunes. Using variable stamp duty as a fiscal tool to control houseprices would be a far more effective way of calming down the market and raising significant revenue for the exchequer at the same time. Unemployment too, is a consequence of bad economic policy , a consequence of the same boom and bust that pushed house prices to ridiculous levels.

    The Lib Dems should continue to support freedom of movement as a basic human right along with policies that help poor people find well paid work and get out of poverty. We need to be different to the Tories who look after the big boys at the top. They do not need looking after. Policies such as raising the minimum wage significantly, particularly in expensive areas should help provide hope and solve the problems that people incorrectly blame on immigration.

  • David Allen 13th Jan '14 - 6:46pm

    Mark Valladares said: “Making sure that people are checked as they leave the country would give us a much better idea as to the scale of overstayers”

    Translation: “There are a lot of nasty people out there, advocating anti-immigration policies, and winning votes by doing so. Now, my problem is that I don’t like anti-immigration policies, but I would like to win some of those votes. What can I do? Well hey, we could count people out of the country, couldn’t we? It would sound vaguely tough while not actually hurting anybody, wouldn’t it? Hey, that’ll impress all them bigots out there, won’t it?”

    No Mark, it won’t. Joe Public can’t write clever political analysis, but he’s not gullible, you know! He can see what you’re trying to achieve, and he’s not buying it.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 13th Jan '14 - 7:42pm

    David,

    You might not be surprised to hear that I disagree with your suggestion. The policy of checking people as they leave the country was in the Party’s 2010 manifesto, and it does at least allow you to conclude that people have left the country when their visa has run out. At the moment, those campaigning for much tougher restrictions on non-EU immigration can claim that the number of illegal immigrants is whatever figure they believe will scare people, although we actually have no real idea.

    I have no interest in giving an impression of being tough on immigrants. As the son of one, it would be hypocritical to take any other stance. But we’ve always had immigration rules in this country, poorly and sometimes unjustly administered as they are, and they are undermined by an inability to resource their implementation.

    So, why not take steps to improve the data, so that we know what sort of problem we have, and take proportionate action, rather than scapegoat those coming to this country to carry out necessary jobs and improve themselves? Because I don’t want to impress the bigots as you put it, I want to persuade them to change their minds.

  • Mark,

    “At the moment, those campaigning for much tougher restrictions on non-EU immigration can claim that the number of illegal immigrants is whatever figure they believe will scare people, although we actually have no real idea.”

    OK, so if you count all the visa holders who leave, then you know how many visa overstayers there are. But you don’t know how many trafficed illegals there are, the people who never got visas but came in under the radar. So you still don’t know the number of illegal immigrants. So people can still invent scary figures if they want to. Meanwhile, you’ve spent a lot of taxpayers’ money on doing your count. It or might not be, just about, worth doing. It’s nothing so important that it should pull in the voters.

    “I don’t want to impress the bigots as you put it, I want to persuade them to change their minds.”

    I think you should listen, and accept that on some aspects, the people have a valid point and it’s not about bigotry. It’s valid to argue that localities subject to the stresses of rapidly expanding populations may deserve more financial etc support. It’s valid to argue that too fast an influx – like half a million in a single year from a single country – is undesirable, and that if that can be slowed or spread out over a longer time, adaptation will be easier.

    If you concede on some of these things, people will understand that you do not have zero empathy. They may then be a bit more receptive when you start talking about the beneficial side of immigration and the need not to victimise the immigrant.

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