Vince Cable talks sense on immigration

Vince Cable has spoken up for the economic benefits of immigration in the Queen’s Speech debate, challenging the half truth and hyperbole in the illiberal rhetoric that’s doing the rounds at the moment. He reserved much of his ire for the Labour party:

I was hesitant about raising the subject because it is essentially covered by the Home Office, but substantial economic issues are also involved and it is important to refer to them. I was provoked into feeling that we should debate the issue in this context because a couple of days ago I was on the radio on the “Jeremy Vine” programme. I was following a female voice that was ranting on about millions of illegal immigrants and the negligence of the Government in letting them all in and not deporting enough people. I thought at the time that it was some fringe party that regarded Mr Nigel Farage as a sort of soggy, left-wing liberal, but I then realised it was the Labour shadow Home Secretary, and I tried to understand where she was coming from. It says quite a lot about the Labour party’s current values that it feels it necessary to apologise for letting in foreigners, but is still reluctant to apologise for wrecking the economy.

He then described how he had calmly debated the issue of immigration with a constituent who had expressed concerns:

I vividly recall a conversation I had with a constituent, shortly before the last general election. She was taking me to task for what she said were millions of illegal immigrants in the country and, rather recklessly perhaps, I decided to debate the subject with her. I asked, “How do you know?”, and she said, “Well, I see them in the high street the whole time.” I said, “Okay, but how do you know they are illegal?” She looked at me and said, “Mr Cable, why are you being so difficult? You know exactly what I mean”, and pointed up the road to the Hounslow mosque. Unfortunately, beneath a lot of the arguments about numbers, that is the prejudice we are trying to confront. We must, I think, make the case—I certainly intend to make it—for managed immigration that has a positive impact on the country, while at the same time providing the necessary level of reassurance.

He then had a bit of a go about the “logical absurdity” of setting policy in terms of net migration:

In order to clear the decks for an honest discussion of this problem, we must confront the reality that some of the facts, or factoids, used in this context are deeply unhelpful. All parties and commentators use the concept of net immigration as a way of measuring what is happening on that front, but at the heart of that concept lies a logical absurdity. One reason net immigration rises is because fewer British people emigrate—one would have thought it rather a good thing that people feel comfortable living in this country and want to stay here. Net immigration declines if more British people emigrate, which one would have thought is rather a bad thing. We often operate, therefore, with a concept that gives us misleading and unhelpful conclusions.

While I expressed concern the other day about the immigration proposals in the Queen’s Speech, I am reassured that our lot are saying the right things, both in private and in public and it’s not just the usual suspects, either. Ed Davey took Nigel Farage’s immigration rhetoric apart in a little watched conversation on the BBC News Channel, telling him that if we put up our drawbridges, there would be retaliation from the rest of the EU. He pointed out that most EU citizens were in fact working here and paying taxes.

I heard excerpts of Vince’s speech on last night’s Today in Parliament which is well worth a listen, not least because it also has our Lords Chief Whip Dick Newby talking about his costume for State Opening of Parliament. You can read the rest of Vince’s speech, which includes details on comsumer protection, intellectual property and reducing NI costs for businesses, in Hansard here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Eddie Sammon 11th May '13 - 11:22am

    Net migration matters because we need to keep an eye on population levels – we can’t just turn the country into a building site.

    People on the left need to stop believing that the public will one day fall in love with immigration. We need to stop talking about it and just get it managed in a fair way, not resorting to stupid measures such as asking for ID cards on death beds.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th May '13 - 12:30pm

    I know I was being over simplistic. I’ve just heard Vince downplay the importance of net migration before and that makes me uneasy. I also don’t agree with him basically picking an argument with a voter to call them prejudiced and then Ed Davey doing the tried and tested thing of criticising Farage and pointing out the benefits of immigration. Alas nobody is perfect.

    My point is that I think we need to put less emphasis on winning the public round through messaging and more on actually getting immigration down.

  • I read the report in todays Telegraph on Vince’s comment, to me he made a lot of sense.

    All net migration gives us is the difference between entry and exits and hence the contribution migration has made to population growth – but given the state of the UKBA, these figures probably need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

    The real target has to be to control gross immigration. However, as we have seen from the attempts made so far by the coalition, this really needs to be informed by data, which in turn requires an effective UKBA and entry and exit checks and matching…

    What I find very odd, is that successive governments have been obsessed with measuring Education and Health delivery to significant levels of granularity, but when it comes to migration they have basically been negligent. You only need to look at the data the mobile phone operators have on their customers (joiners/leavers, churn, longevity, etc.) to realise just how little real information and hence influence and control government has over migration.

  • @Eddie: We all know your feelings on immigration, but what Vince said is completely right. The reason that net-immigration does not go hand-in-hand with ‘population control’ is because just forcing someone to live somewhere else does not mean they no longer exist. Controlling the flow immigration will not tackle the problem of population control, and it is only lazy anti-immigration news-reporters that claim otherwise.

    @Roland: The debate on Government controls on immigration aside, the reason that successive Governments have been happy to allow UKBA (and those organisations which came before it) to be very lax about the way immigration statistics are compiled is because it makes it easier for the Government to write it own stories on what is happening in relation to immigration.

  • Malcolm Todd 11th May '13 - 3:15pm

    Well, I don’t think I share Eddie Sammon’s views on immigration, but logically he’s right, insofar as net immigration is what makes a difference to how many people are living here, and some, at least, of the concern about immigration is about rapidly increasing population creating unmanageable pressure on our infrastructure.

    In fact, I’m a bit confused by the two strands of Vince’s argument here. Surely, what those people who are motivated by the sort of prejudice he describes in his constituent* object to is precisely the gross immigration figure, because they see it as importing an alien or threatening culture; whereas someone who is entirely open to other cultures and ways of life and unimpressed by ideas of “blood and soil” will be unbothered by the exchange of peoples represented by high immigration and emigration figures but may be concerned about high net immigration for the purely practical reasons stated above.

    *By the way, I say hats off to Vince for “basically picking an argument with a voter to call them prejudiced ” — I get so tired of politicians endlessly praising the good sense and open-mindedness of the electorate, the British people, etc. Some of them are bigots, fools and chancers, you know. Even some of the ones who vote the same way as you…

  • The immigration debate (depending on which side of the fence you are on), will inevitably pigeon hole you into the naive, liberal, socialist, camp, or the racist, prejudiced, (even fascist), camp. It inevitably turns into a bun fight, (unfortunately).
    But the demographics of the UK (like much of the developed world), is an ageing society. That tells me that whatever happens, and whatever the answer, the youth of the country, are going to have to do ‘the heavy lifting’, when it comes to solutions.
    So what do the youth think? Does the 20 year old French girl, Clara G in this link, give us an insight?

  • Eddie Sammon 11th May '13 - 5:27pm

    Which views on immigration of mine don’t you share? That I think it should come down? I don’t see what controversial views I have come out with on immigration.

    I commented because I feel too many people believe everything will be fine once the public hears the liberal argument, but I think the argument has been lost. Most of the public want it down and we’ll never get anywhere as a party until we begin to address these concerns.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th May '13 - 5:31pm

    Also, it seems both gross immigration and net migration figures matter, so perhaps we should target both. I don’t want to over simplify it.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th May '13 - 6:26pm

    Well, perhaps we could encourage criminals to leave by improving the police service. I don’t believe in welfare sanctions so I’m not going to say punish those who haven’t found a job they like.

    OK, I’ve seen the light, Vince does have a point about gross immigration being the main concern, but I still think the net figure matters and too many people seem happy to just build over the UK’s countryside. I really care about the countryside!

  • Eddie Sammon 11th May '13 - 6:48pm

    I’m not going to be pressured into a complete backtrack though. The immigration debate boils down to a deeper concern:

    It’s not really about whether the people are here legally or not, many people just have not been happy with the cultural and demographic changes to the country. This is why I disagreed with Vince challenging a voter on the legality fact.

    I’m personally in favour of a multicultural and multiethnic UK, but the issue is so highly personal I don’t think we should be challenging people on it.

    Rather I think we should just recognise that unskilled immigration has been too high and we should see how we can get it down.

  • @Eddie: While I agree, the countryside is very important, and I agree the housing problems are in areas where immigration is highest, this is because the Government decided to make a system which forced those immigrating here for any purpose besides study need to move to areas with the highest paid jobs and skills shortages, so in short already, often densially populated areas. While areas where these pressures did not exist, the Government it untenable for immigrants to move there. Therefore, limiting immigration will not tackle this problem, but having a progressive and logical immigration system which actually persuades to immigrate more evenly will greatly alleviate this issue.

    As for unskilled immigration; how has it been too high? That is a very strong statement to make. Also May be we should be asking businesses, why, when the Government makes it so much more preferable to higher settled-workers, they still choose to higher unsettled workers.

    Also, Eddie, multiculturalism is not a personal issue because it affects the core of society, if we just say ‘this is just a personal thing’, then we recklessly allowing ignorance to govern peoples opinions, an ignorance that the Right-Wing will be all too happy to utilise for its own agenda. Furthermore, multiculturalism changes the way we treat people, and as such, how we are perceived internationally. I can assure you Eddie, these constant attacks on immigrants and multiculturalism are doing us no favours internationally, and are hurting our economy, as well as our society. It is also for these reasons that we practically, as well as morally, cannot take your fatalistic, ‘well this is a lost caused’ viewpoint and allow ourselves to taken away by the popularist anti-immigrate agenda. If the Liberal Democrats are not willing to promote reason and continue to argue for evidence-based progressive policy, who is?

    What you seem to fail to appreciate, Eddie, is that what you call ‘people concerns’, are not concerns at all, they are the seeds of something much darker, based almost wholly on lies, slanderous claims and ignorance (the very things that the Lib Dem Party was founded to overcome). One only needs to look back through the blood stained pages of our history to see what we these seeds can become and why we not just want to, but have to continually stand against these claims, even if it puts on the wrong side of pupil opinion.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th May '13 - 1:38am

    I’m not being absolutist about it, I agree we need more houses it is just to the extent that we probably disagree.

    Regarding unskilled immigration: I just get the feeling that unskilled immigration has been too high because of the way EU immigration is fairly uncontrolled and we cannot manage this on a case by case basis. I’m not saying we need to pull out of Europe to deal with it, I’m just saying it’s been difficult. I think people generally are worried about the pressure it is putting on public services and the shear numbers migrating in. I think we do need to keep reassuring the public that what happened in 2004 won’t happen again.

    Regarding multiculturalism: I know it is not a purely personal thing and we should fight against scapegoating and malice claims. However what I want to say at the same time is that people concerned about multiculturalism are not horrible people. We really are dealing with people’s genuine concerns and I feel some are too quick to attack the people for being concerned and label them as bigoted etc.

    When I make arguments I do over simplify things but that’s because these things are so complex it takes time explain things properly and usually it’s quicker to just make a one sided comment. I think we all do this and sometimes it can look like we have opposite opinions but usually it’s just a question of degree, rather than an absolute disagreement.

  • Vince is making the right case. We must tackle the too simple solutions offered by both the right and the left over the years. Vince was right protecting foreign students contribution to the country and Ed Davey was right to point out the consequences of retaliatory action by other governments, so often conveniently ignored by illiberal soundbites. We need a system that works, with in my opinion more discretion and common sense and not arbitrary lines in the sand.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th May '13 - 10:22am

    Liberal Al, I think more housing should be built, I’m not an absolutist or someone who wants to block every development, it’s just a factor I think is sometimes overlooked.

    I don’t think it is a strong statement to make to say unskilled immigration has been too high, this is just how I feel due to the enlargement of the EU. I’m not saying we should pull out, but I think the concerns about infrastructure and the sheer scale of immigration over the past decade has caused genuine anxiety; albeit not helped by others.

    Again, I’m not an absolutist on multiculturalism either. I think we need to fight scapegoating and malicious claims by the press and other parties. When commenting on Lib Dem Voice I don’t always write down a balanced opinion because it is quicker to resort to a one sided comment on the point I want to make.

    My main point is that people’s concerns about immigration are genuine and I don’t think we should attack people for being concerned. I don’t like it when I see people in our party criticise members of the public. I think we need to stop thinking we are more moral than others and seek to understand people better.

  • Miranda Whitehead 12th May '13 - 11:21am

    I was very encouraged by VInce’s measured response; and its not just about unskilled labour.The problem we will be having all too soon is that our new entrepreneurs wont be able to employ the high quality coders and programmers necessary for their business start ups. At the moment we are not training enough of our shrinking number of young people to take on these technically demanding jobs, so skilled immigrant labour is vital. I was speaking with the COO of Entrepreneur First and she was concerned. I heard Vince’s response to the M P for Shoreditch ( Tech. city) and she was voicing exactly the same worries.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th May '13 - 11:35am

    Oops, I made more or less the same comment twice because I thought the first one had been blocked by the moderators.

  • Andrew Colman 12th May '13 - 1:27pm

    Good to hear someone defend immigration.

    The UK and USA owe their success to immigration. For centuries, the UK and USA have been tolerent places where people could come to escape persecution (often religous) and prosper, benefiting themselves and the country. Indeed, The British empire was built on tolerance and diplomacy rather than conquest and oppresion. Therefore UKIP and others who want to curb immigration and the rights of others they dont like (eg gay marriage) are un-British

    Today, Two of our best exports are (a) the English language which is international and something most ambitious and intellegent people want to learn and (b) Our academic institutions which are world leaders and attract paying students from all over the world. The current obsession about immigration numbers puts both these markets in peril, potentally costing the UK £10s or Billions in lost income

    As for controlling population, this is a valid point but nothing to do with immigration (as expressed aboveby Liberal Al ).

  • Eddie Sammon 13th May '13 - 6:22am


    “The British empire was built on tolerance and diplomacy rather than conquest and oppresion. Therefore UKIP and others who want to curb immigration and the rights of others they dont like (eg gay marriage) are un-British”

    I don’t see how the British empire was the benevolent charity you make out. I also don’t think that people who are conservative are “un-British”.

    “The current obsession about immigration numbers puts both these markets in peril, potentally costing the UK £10s or Billions in lost income”

    So should we tell people in working class areas who are worried about immigration to shut up and know what’s good for them?

    “As for controlling population, this is a valid point but nothing to do with immigration (as expressed aboveby Liberal Al ).”

    This is also nonsense – the UK is one of the most densely populated countries in the world so of course national population numbers matter.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th May '13 - 6:26am

    To further my point: was the US war of independence based on tolerance and diplomacy?

  • The War of American Independence didn’t have anything to do with immigration one way or another, except that obviously all of the colonists involved in the fighting (on one side or the other) were immigrants or descendants of immigrants to America. The Americans had a long list of grievances (some justified, others tendentious and absurd) but British restrictions on immigration weren’t among them; anyone who could pay (or offer indentured labour) and was willing to put up with a couple of months of seasickness, scurvy, and eating rancid food was able to go to America. Until the war started, there weren’t a whole lot of Americans who wanted to go the other way, but those who did don’t seem to have had much trouble.
    Those who emigrated from Great Britain did so for a variety of reasons, often economic but sometimes based on a perceived intolerance, particularly of religious minorities; Separatists, Independents, Baptists, Quakers, and Catholics all had a pretty hard time in the realms of James I and Charles I and found more freedom in America. Of course, those who reached America as often as not established colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, New Haven) that exhibited at least as much intolerance as anything they had experienced in England, and the colonies (from Virginia southward) where the Established Church prevailed were no more tolerant than the mother country. Although English law and the nominal suzerainty of the Crown followed them, clearly many emigrants left in the hope that they would be able to manage their affairs without any interference from London. Others went because they were looking for gold, or land, or a personal challenge, or had lost everything and wanted a fresh start (something that happened a lot during the Civil Wars and their aftermath). Of the non-English in the colonies, some (like the Dutch) had been there earlier, while others (Germans and Huguenots for instance) were religious minorities in their own countries who were attracted by the prospect of a greater degree of religious freedom in colonies like Pennsylvania. But such conditions were the exception and not the rule in colonial America.
    In other words, neither Andrew’s comment nor Eddie’s rejoinder make much historical sense.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th May '13 - 8:40am

    Interesting David. Yes, I know I am not an expert on history – I was just providing the counter argument to what looked like a rosy view of the British empire.

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