The Independent View: “I’m a believer in the benefits of well-managed immigration” says Clegg

Nick CleggOn Tuesday, in a speech in Manor House in north London, Nick Clegg gave a major speech on immigration. Like the immigration speech he gave last year, hosted by CentreForum, his recent speech will be hotly debated and greatly misrepresented.

The speech was clearly an attempt to provide reassurance to the British public that the Lib Dems wanted a fair immigration system that enabled “the brightest and the best” to come to work and study in the UK but was robust in stamping out cheating and abuse. Nick believes this is important because:

… being a nation at ease with diversity and difference does not happen by accident. Successful immigration systems have to be managed. People need to see that they are good for society as a whole. Otherwise all you do is create fear and resentment – you give populists an open goal.

The speech was aimed at those who are concerned about “the problems of immigration: the unfairness people feel; the threats they see to their way of life. Does that make you a racist?” Nick asked. “No it does not” (a claim we have heard before).

Nick adopted what has become the standard Lib Dem tactic when discussing immigration: proposing to strengthen the government’s response to abuse of the system rather than placing limits on those who wish to come to work or study (as is so often the case, family reunion and asylum were not discussed). He therefore opened by emphasising the Liberal Democrats commitment to open borders and the positive aspects of their record in government. “I’m a believer in the benefits of well-managed immigration” he began before emphasising the outlawing of child detention.

Note, however, the caveat “well-managed”. The bulk of the speech focused on the policies designed to monitor and control migration and to stamp out abuse:

  • Firmer action on illegal immigration: making it harder for illegal immigrants to open bank accounts and get driving licences
  • A clamp down on sham marriages: “enlisting Britain’s registrars” by requiring them to notify the Home Office if they suspect a marriage is bogus, extending the notice period for marriages from 14 to 28 days and allowing the Home Office to extend this to 70 days in cases that need investigation
  • Better border controls: strengthening exit controls, so as to provide robust figures on the number of people entering and leaving the country (a Lib Dem staple)
  • Preventing the employment of immigrants at less than the Minimum Wage by increasing the number of inspectors and the size of the fines (thank you Ed Miliband)
  • Reforming EU migration: strengthening “transitional controls” for the citizens of new member-states, putting a three month cap on (most) non-British benefits claimants, requiring two years residence in an area before eligibility for social housing
  • Requiring migrants to learn English: having already introduced a language test in visa applications and enabled Jobcentre Plus to require benefits claimants to attend language courses, Nick has asked the DVLA and Passport Office to stop providing translation services.

Some of this is uncontroversial and some of it existing Lib Dem policy. But other bits are likely to cause ructions in the party. In particular, the entire approach on transitional controls for new EU members will undoubtedly antagonise members who are, for the most part, staunchly pro-EU. Never mind that “we are the party of ‘in’” (inserted late into the speech) and that “freedom of movement between EU member-states is a good thing”;

… when the EU enlarges in the future, we’ll need to be stricter and clearer on the transition controls… to go beyond the 7 year maximum for transition controls, depending on the size and economy of the country joining the EU – and the extent to which we expect its nationals to look for work here. I also believe we’ll need to agree a period of time in which existing member states including Britain retain the right to put on the brakes if people begin arriving in numbers too big for our society to absorb successfully.

This latter point is a substantial U-turn. In CentreForum’s report on labour migration in 2013, I argued that “By making the issue one of quantity rather than quality, the government has turned the entire immigration issue into a numbers game.” Nick rightly rejected this approach when pressed by MigrationWatch to say what he thought was a sustainable net immigration figure, but the above passage implies that there is an appropriate level (rather than a category of appropriate people). This speech will make it harder to avoid defining that number in future.

Talking up the benefits of immigration but taking a tough line on abuse is a tempting approach for a party whose potential voters are divided on the benefits of immigration. But it has not proved successful in the past. Immigration policy is not an area where one can please everybody. Until the nature of the debate shifts, immigration will remain a divisive issue. While it is tempting to steer a safe course, it might be better for the Lib Dems and for the wider immigration debate to try to carve out a clear and distinctive liberal approach to immigration.

* Tom Papworth is a member of Waltham Forest Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • Tony Dawson 6th Aug '14 - 10:28am

    If Nick Clegg is a believer in well-managed immigration, might one ask why he has not ensured, as part of his ‘collective Cabinet responsibility’ that Teresa May has delivered this at some time over the past four years?

  • ‘Well Managed’ migration, you are having a laugh!!

    Have the courage of your convictions, the LIbDems have shown they believe in absolute open door immigration from anywhere by anybody. Left to their own devices the LibDems would never have allowed a debate on immigration in the first place, and spent many many years as part of the establishment insulting my party with cries of ‘racist’, because it dard to to challenge the establishment view by listening to the electorate.

    Go to any part of the country, read the local press, there will nearly always be a campaign going on somewhere to stop some illegal immigrant being deported, The ‘well managed’ immigration left them to their own devices for years, allowing them to breed, buy a cat, become a key member of the local community or the local church etc etc etc, at the forefront of the campaign to allow this illegal to stay will be a Liberal l Democrat politician of that you can guarantee.

    Your party has no credibility on immigration, and this attempt to dishonestly portray a position you would certainly renege on after a GE, is dishonesty of the highest order. Your party by its actions not words has shown that it believes the UK should be open to settlement and citizenship by anybody and everybody who manages to set foot on this side of the channnel, your actions have shown you consider the the people of these islands have no superior rights.

    What price priniciple, for LIbDems it would appear to be as low as the bottom inch on the greasy pole of political opportunism.

  • You have chosen an important quotation:

    … when the EU enlarges in the future, we’ll need to be stricter and clearer on the transition controls… to go beyond the 7 year maximum for transition controls, depending on the size and economy of the country joining the EU – and the extent to which we expect its nationals to look for work here. I also believe we’ll need to agree a period of time in which existing member states including Britain retain the right to put on the brakes if people begin arriving in numbers too big for our society to absorb successfully.

    As I wrote on the other thread, Nick Clegg is clearly referring to Turkey. The coded language is not sustainable: if Nick Clegg and others do not think that the entry of Turkey to the EU is manageable then they should say so. Jean Claude Juncker has indicated that he foresees a pause to enlargement, but for reasons that I am not sure about, but could include US pressure, UK politicians have always been at the vanguard of the push to enlargement. Yet when it happens, many UK politicians want to change the goal posts, while spitting blood at the EU.

    There needs to be an honest frank debate about enlargement and about Turkey in particular. The enlargement we have seen is proving an important spur for growth, with benefits across the EU and with the UK’s ageing demographic profile people need to understand that the contribution that immigrants make is needed to fund their pensions and other old age provisions. Some countries such as Germany and Luxembourg are much more grown up about this and maintain prosperity on the back of immigration.

  • jedibeeftrix 6th Aug '14 - 1:14pm

    A Europe of the four freedoms is more or less what I want, and likewise I want turkey to have the (real) option of joining.

  • We have had a new immigration act this year limiting access to services, facilities and employment by reference to immigration status and making provision about marriage and civil partnership involving certain foreign nationals.

    The proposals in this speech are managerial in nature, but do not address the heart of the current issue for many i.e. how to or whether to satisfactorily accommodate an ever larger population competing for scarce private and public resources on this relatively small Island.

    Cambridge Professor of Economics, Robert Rowthorn has recently completed a new study on UK immigration, Civitas comment:

    “Immigration is frequently described as providing a counter-balance to the UK’s ageing population. As an ever-larger proportion of British residents is retired, large numbers of immigrants help keep the average age down and contribute much-needed taxes to the Treasury coffers. But how much does Britain benefit – and how do this compare with the costs of a growing population?

    In this new analysis of the economic and demographic consequences of current levels of immigration, the distinguished Cambridge economist Robert Rowthorn finds that the potential economic gains from immigration are modest compared with the strains placed on amenities such as housing, land, schools, hospitals, water supply and transport systems.

    While GDP as a whole will grow with increased immigration, Rowthorn notes, GDP per capita – a much better indicator of the nation’s wealth – will be only marginally affected by the enormous population growth forecast for the coming century. He cites the Office for National Statistics’ high migration scenario, which sees growth in the UK population of 20 million over the next 50 years and 29 million over the next 75 years – entirely from migration. This is equivalent to adding a city almost the size of Birmingham to the UK population every two-and-a-half years for the next 75 years.

    “Unrestrained population growth would eventually have a negative impact on the standard of living through its environmental effects such as overcrowding, congestion and loss of amenity,” Rowthorn writes.

  • Tony Dawson 6th Aug '14 - 4:59pm

    @Raddiy :

    “the LIbDems have shown they believe in absolute open door immigration from anywhere by anybody.

    Go to any part of the country, read the local press, there will nearly always be a campaign going on somewhere to stop some illegal immigrant being deported,”

    The only campaigns I get involved in on immigration are to stop the government from illegally deporting people who are lawfully here but being persecuted by the immigration department. Legality is determined by judges, not ministers and/or government officers who do not understand the law. I also campaign for the resources presently wasted by this department to be spent effectively on removing unlawful immigrants, rather than wasting time persecuting lawful immigrants.

  • Forecasts are pretty much always wrong – the key bit is where the statistician explains that the forecasts depend on the assumption that current trends are both representative and will continue, valid if nothing changes. The national statistics people in the early 1990s were forecasting a steadily declining population as Britain moved into the greying and below-replacement fertility section of the good old Demographic Transition Model, with the trend of zero net migration observed throughout the 1980s being assumed to continue. Then the old Soviet Union’s western periphery became Eastern Europe, and by 2004 the free movement area stretched beyond the equally grey countries of Western Europe, totally negating every prediction that came before.

    Now, in 2014, our statisticians are looking at the recent trends and are using that data to build mathematical models and extrapolate lines that go ever upwards. The validity of these extrapolations can be illustrated when we remember that the results from the model are exactly as mathematically valid extrapolating backwards as forwards. When we extrapolate backwards the model tells us that Britain had no people in it at all circa 1850. Clearly absurd.

    Immigration hit a peak from 2004 when Britain decided that it would apply no transitional regulations to those countries that entered the Union in that year. For some reason, this oversight is apparently the European Commission’s fault, but you can bet your life that if they had told Britain that it might want to, say, match the restrictions that Germany or France were putting in place, it would have been decried as unwarranted interference. But regardless, it was that oversight, the circumstance of the European Union expanding massively in a single step and the coincidence of a then-strong UK economy with demand for unskilled labour that combined to cause the immigration peak.

    This is not something that is on the horizon again. Europe will accept the remaining Balkan states as members in the near future, but taken together they’re only about half a Poland and you can bet that Britain will match the strictest limits in Europe on them if not exceed them. Europe will not expand into the Ukraine or Belarus, firstly because they’re dirt poor, secondly because they don’t meet the standards of governance and rule of law (Belarus in particular), and thirdly because Russia wants a buffer zone so that it can be sure of strategic depth in a hypothetical world war three. And European expansion to include Turkey will need to wait for the Turkish government to become a lot more effective at delivering rule of law and a lot less willing to erode its own state secular founding principles.

    Alongside this change in circumstances, the coincidence of a strong UK economy is not present today, nor is it likely to be so in the near future. Whether you choose to lay the blame for it at coalition austerity or Labour profligacy, the fact is that Britain’s economy has just been through the deepest recession in living memory with the most sluggish, underwhelming recovery since the aftermath of the South Seas Bubble crash in the early 18th Century. Not really an attractive destination economy.

    And of course the attractiveness of Britain as a destination for anyone really is increasingly compromised by public attitudes and government policy that dissuades student and high-skilled migration along with everything else. In many ways, the UK government is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs in R&D, while at the same time throwing away the demographic windfall of having attracted a younger, more flexible workforce to offset the aging population.

    The challenges and problems thrown up by migration are as much a consequence of the fundamentally skewed economic and political consensus we have post-Thatcher, as they are of the simple process of more people being present. The decision of political forces like UKIP to focus their efforts on leaving Europe and preventing people from coming to Britain, rather than on accepting the economic benefit of Britain’s immigrant workforce and trying to achieve the reinvestment of the proceeds in better infrastructure and housing is unfortunate.

    In the short term it means that the effects of increasing wealth inequality will be partially masked as the disadvantaged section, Britain’s White Working Class, has to share with fewer people. But, this will mean cutting a small slice of a small cake into fewer pieces, which is a rather sad choice to make when the possibility of getting a larger cake that is divided more fairly in the first place exists.

  • Little Jackie Paper 6th Aug '14 - 7:04pm

    George Potter – Can you link to that report?

  • Little Jackie Paper 6th Aug '14 - 7:29pm

    T-J – ‘ In many ways, the UK government is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs in R&D, while at the same time throwing away the demographic windfall of having attracted a younger, more flexible workforce to offset the aging population.’

    I’d love to buy that but you have got a rose-tinted view there. First off, we can have the youngest and most flexible workforce in the world, without actual jobs that generate serious incomes it doesn’t matter one bit. To say that we need immigration for pensions strikes me as a terrible argument. If we want pensions then what we need is a system of saving that pays for pensions. What we need is a boomer generation that sells its houses and what we need is an economy with a tax base sufficient to pay. Placing reliance on maybe attracting the right immigrants who may stay long-term and who may make large contributions is a pension policy equivalent to crossing one’s fingers.

    What about when those immigrants are old and need pensions themselves – are we hoping to import another young and flexible workforce? As you say yourself, the UK is not always an attractive destination – how is it sensible to base a pensions policy on immigration? Sterling’s descent to toilet paper status alone has been a disincentive to come to the UK, but then why should currency policy be based on immigrants – do you see the can of worms you open with this thinking?

    And all this is to say nothing of the wage arbitrage that is implicit in any immigration to an economy not at full capacity, the pressure on public services (acknowledging that there is a debate to be had about provision) and the pressures on housing. These things are real. A demographic windfall isn’t much use if there isn’t the capacity to handle it.

    As to R&D what is stopping the best and the brightest exactly? Take a look at the staff list at universities. The complaints seem to me to be from people who use the term, ‘highly skilled,’ however they seem to conflate that with, ‘a skillset that might be of value to some employer somewhere.’ Those two are not the same thing. Numbers on international students are available ––schools/Policy-research–statistics/Research–statistics/International-students-in-UK-HE/. Does that look like a shortage of students to you?

    With all respect, immigration is not just a matter of economics and balance sheets. There is more to this. After all there are lots of people with an entirely good claim to immigration who are not meaningfully, ‘high value.’ The social side of it matters. Whilst Nick Clegg is to be praised for parts of his speech, I was left with the feeling that the social side had been pushed aside by the economics. To an extent that might not be so bad, but I don’t think it is really engaging with the full range of concerns.

    The fundamental problem is the perception (perhaps well founded) that the EU is not a truly reciprocal union. It works well for some, but not all. Ultimately Europe is a poor continent, just with a few hotspots. The EU’s soft power was based essentially on being one big consumer base. Post 2008 it really doesn’t amount to much. It is not at all clear to me what the EU could offer any of Ukraine, Belarus and Turkey.

  • Tom,

    Professor Rowthorn in concluding his chapter on population and ageing, notes “Immigration helps to slow down the inevitable ageing of the UK population and also leads to faster population growth. To the extent that fast population growth is seen as undesirable, the resulting costs must be weighed against the presumed benefits of rejuvenation through immigration. It may be better to settle for less immigration and much slower population growth at the cost of somewhat faster ageing. A rate of net migration equal to 50,000 annually is almost as effective at rejuvenating the national population as a much higher rate of net migration. It does so with much less impact on population growth.”

    The main conclusions to his report are:

    – Net migration from the EU is currently at around 130,000 per annum. The future scale of such migration will depend on what happens to the economies of eastern and southern Europe. Poland is expected to grow quite fast and the migration of Polish workers to the UK should begin to fall in the near future, although there is no sign of this happening yet. Prospects for southern Europe and the poorer eastern states, such as Bulgaria and Romania, are less rosy, and immigration from these countries is unlikely to fall any time soon.
     If net migration from the EU continues at the present rate, it will be virtually impossible to achieve David Cameron’s target of net migration ‘in the tens of thousands’.
     In almost every year over the past decade, net migration has been higher than the rate of 225,000 p.a. assumed by the ONS in its high migration projection. Net migration has recently fallen back somewhat, but is currently still over 200,000 p.a.
     Taking into account the children born to future migrants, with net migration at the rate envisaged under the ONS high migration scenario, the UK population would increase by a projected 20 million over the next 50 years and by 29 million over the next 75 years. This growth would be almost entirely due to migration.
     Assuming the extra workers were productively employed, the result would be an appreciably faster growth in total GDP than would otherwise be the case. The effect on GDP per capita would be marginal.
     Net migration at the current rate would also have a rejuvenating effect on the national population and increase the share of this population who are of working age. However, these benefits would be modest and once achieved they could only be maintained through further net migration into the indefinite future.
     The economic gains from large-scale immigration come mainly from its impact on the age-structure of the population. Most of these gains could be achieved with a much lower rate of net migration, and hence a much lower rate of population growth, than the UK is currently experiencing.
     The age-structure is conveniently summarised by the dependency ratio (number persons aged 65+ per 100 persons aged 15-64). With net migration of 225,000 p.a. the ONS projects that the dependency ratio would increase to 50.5 per cent by 2087 and population would reach 92.9 million. With net migration of 50,000 p.a., the dependency ration in 2087 would be 54.0 per cent and the population 74.2 million. Comparing the two scenarios, the extra migration required to reduce the 2087 dependency ratio by 3.5 percentage points (from 54.0 per cent to 50.5 per cent) adds an extra 18.7 million to the national population. To maintain this minor benefit requires continued net migration at the higher rate in perpetuity.
     Dustmann and Frattini (2013) estimate that the migrant population as a whole generated a fiscal surplus of between -0.5 per cent and +0.2 per cent of GDP over the period 2001-2011. They also estimate that over this period recent migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA)* generated a fiscal surplus of between £22 billion and £36 billion. These estimates are probably too high. However, even after plausible downward adjustments, it seems that recent EEA migrants have either paid their way or generated a modest surplus.
     Immigration from outside the EEA had a perceptible impact on the level of native employment in the years immediately following the financial crisis of 2007-8. The same is probably true of immigration from within the EEA, although the statistical evidence on this point is less solid.
     Unskilled workers have suffered some reduction in their wages due to competition from immigrants.
     Even on optimistic assumptions, the economic and fiscal gains for existing inhabitants and their descendants from large-scale immigration are small in comparison to its impact on population growth.
     Government policy towards immigration from outside the EEA (and Switzerland) is becoming more selective, making it more difficult for unskilled workers to enter, but encouraging the entry of skilled and talented individuals.
     If this policy is applied on a large scale to poor countries it may denude some of them of the professional elites upon which they depend.
     Controls over migration from poor countries should be designed in such a way as to promote their welfare and economic development. Migration policy towards these countries should be seen as a complement to the official aid policy and not as a means of enriching ourselves at their expense.

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