A ‘modest proposal’ on immigration?
New immigration Minister Phil Woolas has spoken out on immigration, and, true to form, has revealed that the brief he’s been given is, as always, to sound tougher than the last guy! He has told the Times that he wants to make it harder to enter the UK, and indeed that the Government doesn’t want the UK population to rise above 70 million. This is dangerous, unsustainable rhetoric, and it’s precisely what the immigration debate doesn’t need from Government Ministers.
First, what does a 70 million cap on the population mean in practice? Does it mean that when the 70 millionth person enters the UK, planes will be diverted, and will only be allowed to land as soon as another one has taken off? Pity the person who is one over quota as the plane comes into land, although maybe he or she will be able to stay on the plane rather than get dumped with the excess fuel.
Indeed, it’s important to remember that immigration is not the only way that population grows. For most of Britain’s history, it’s been a minor contributor to the growth that has usually come from childbirth, or reduced child mortality or people living longer. Presumably, if the birth rate ever increases, or further advances in health lead to prolonged lifespans, people will be given the option to leave the UK rather than more drastic measures (the heading of this post is taken from the 18th century pamphlet by satirist Jonathan Swift, whose ‘modest proposal’ was that famine in Ireland could be dealt with at a stroke by eating babies.)
Is it even rational to talk of an upper limit on population? Bits of Britain are crowded, but more people used to live in London than do now, and Scotland is still facing a declining population. And whilst there may well be other countries with fewer people per square mile than the UK, there are others (such as the Netherlands) which are more populous. Who’s to say what the maximum population should be?
I know it’s odd coming from the TUC, but I suspect the state ISN’T the best judge of the ideal population size: other Governments have tried it, and it always ends in tears. Many countries find that as soon as you tell people they can’t leave, it becomes their ultimate goal in life, and conversely, everyone wants to join a club that fiercely restricts its membership.
But of course immigration isn’t an issue that is often debated rationally, and Phil Woolas’ comments aren’t intended to be viewed in that light. He’s just making it clear where he stands on the debate – and it’s the wrong place. His advisers in the Migration Impacts Forum (I should know, I am one), and on bodies like the Borders Agency Stakeholders Group (yup, I’m on that too) have both met recently, and both would far prefer it if Ministers spent more time explaining (a) why migration is on balance a good thing; and (b) what they are going to do about the bits of migration that can cause problems (eg exploitation, which hurts both the migrant and those already settled, and pressure on services, which leads to conflict over the rationing that results).
Government Ministers need to be very careful about giving comfort to those in the media and in extremist political parties by talking about this in such irrational terms: of course the Government isn’t going to cap the number of people in the UK, because it has neither the power to do so, nor would it be good for Britain’s economy, society or people.
That doesn’t mean immigration can’t or shouldn’t be debated. It should. But we need Ministers to be dealing with the real issues like making services more responsive, improving rights at work, and delivering rather than cutting language training.