It’s the demographics, stupid. This is truly the thread that links November’s re-election of an incumbent US President and a series of disappointingly poor Conservative performances in parliamentary contests.
In opposition, David Cameron rightly observed that the presentation of immigration policy needs to be handled with care. It must NEVER be ‘too hot to handle’, but as seats such as Croydon North (notionally Conservative until 1997, but now somewhere we are barely able to secure one-in-six votes) show, demographic change means the coalition needs to look afresh at the wisdom and effectiveness of its much-vaunted immigration policy.
The Republican Party in the US trailed its Democrat rivals by a vertiginous 87 percentage points amongst African Americans, 47% amongst Asian voters and 44% amongst Latinos. Whilst headline voting figures are not so stark for UK Conservatives, the trends are unmistakably similar.
Ministers have taken heart from yesterday’s figures from the Office for National Statistics demonstrating that 59 000 fewer people arrived on our shores last year than in the previous year. But let us not forget that we still had 183 000 more people arriving in the country than departing, with London bucking the national trend with a slight increase in its overall influx of migrants – the capital last year added a further 51 000 people to its population. The coalition’s vow to reduce annual net migration from ‘hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands’ is not only unworkable, but in all likelihood its rhetoric repels many swing voters. Not only significant numbers from ethnic communities, but also many Middle England electors in key marginal seats, who conclude that the Conservative Party is simply irrelevant to the challenges facing the modern world as they see and live it.
Simultaneously the fact that the coalition continues to struggle to deliver its headline promise to reduce net migration to below 100,000 per year by 2015 dismays the very right-wing voters the policy was intended to impress. This is now the worst of all worlds – a failure to implement an immigration pledge, that repels ‘centre ground’ voters whilst being regarded as ineffectual by former supporters, now inclined to vote UKIP, English Democrat or worse.
Add to this the recent Home Office confirmation that some 29 million Romanian and Bulgarian citizens will enjoy unrestricted rights of free movement in a little over one year’s time, yet highly skilled workers from outside the EU struggle to wade through a sea of bureaucracy and delay before being admitted to a nation that once prided itself on being ‘outward looking’, ‘open for business’ and is now desperate to kick-start economic growth.
I have long warned that the easiest way to reduce overall migration is the most damaging one to our economy. Namely to cap the number of highly skilled individuals wishing to work here and clamp down on student visas. Since the government has precious few tools at its disposal to stem the tide of EU nationals, and refugees and asylum seekers (protected by human rights legislation), non-EU nationals were always going to bear the brunt of the new policy. So it has come to pass. While arrivals from Eastern Europe continued to rise with a net influx of 35 000, yesterday’s ONS figures suggest that the main reason for the fall in net migration is a decline in foreign students coming to Britain, alongside an increase in net emigration of 17 000 (including the departure of 10 000 more British citizens than in 2010).
As an MP with hugely important commercial interests located in my constituency, my private office is now inundated by employers, education providers and the highly qualified alike who recognise the cap is causing real damage to the UK economy. Take the example of Britain’s world-beating education sector. Over the past decade or so, UK universities and higher education colleges have attracted increasing numbers of fee-paying students from across the globe, many of whom go back to their home nations as tremendous ambassadors for the UK. In 2009, we had 9.9% market share in this sector, representing export earnings of £7.9 billion, and as developing nations become richer, there is huge potential for this sector to expand.
The UK Border Agency (UKBA) advises that it remains open to those with the right qualifications studying in the UK, with no annual limit on numbers. Those who secure a graduate job paying £20 000 p.a. or more can stay, again without limit on numbers. Their focus, the UKBA insists, is on the least compliant education sectors, not elite universities. All perfectly reasonable.
This summer, however, meetings I had with King’s College London (KCL) and the London School of Economics (LSE), two elite universities in my constituency, suggested the reality is less rosy. At KCL, the number of applications for post-graduate taught programmes from Indian and Pakistani students is down by 14% and 11% respectively since future employment prospects are a key motivator in these markets. It is a similar picture at the LSE, which is facing particular recruitment difficulties in disciplines such as accounting, economics, finance, management and law. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for these top-flight global universities to obtain transfers for high level researchers in order to maintain academic staff of the highest international repute. Overall, the number of study visas has plunged by 21% in a year.
It is not their only concern. Universities are frequently frustrated with the operational management of their relationships with the UKBA. Information and guidance is inconsistent, there is a dearth of specific case managers and a lack of notice before rules are changed. In addition, the cost of the new immigration regime to universities as employers is rising steadily, both in terms of paying sponsorship fees and in the amount of staff time dedicated to resolving immigration problems. Prospective overseas staff now perceive that it is difficult to get a visa for the UK and are preferring to move to the US and Australia instead. Sabbatical and research leave abroad is being counted as part of international academics’ 180 days and many are disturbed by six year maximum leave for Tier 2 visas which is damaging career progression.
The problem with the immigration debate is that it has long been stifled by a lack of candour. In truth, the movement of international business people, students and academics is not the nub of the issue for most Britons. Although few support employers choosing an international worker over a similarly skilled Briton, or welcome with open arms each and every person wanting to make a new life here, equally most accept that flexibility in a country’s immigration system is now part and parcel of being a signed-up member of the global economy.
Instead, worries about immigration broadly stem from a sense of rapid change to our communities which no longer seems under control and for which there has never been an explicit mandate. I accept that the demographic mix of countless English towns, not just large cities, has changed drastically in recent years. Often the size of a particular ethnic group or nationality in an area is such that integration is not regarded as necessary or even desirable for new arrivals. These has been additional pressure on schools, housing, services, local employment and wage rates for the semi- and unskilled. All these are entirely legitimate public concerns which need to be tackled. What few politicians are willing to admit explicitly is that some forms of immigration are economically desirable, while others are emphatically not. None of this is likely to be addressed by the superficially seductive notion of an arbitrary cap.
While the UKBA expends considerable resource in determining whether to allow highly skilled, non-EU business people into the UK, it is distracted from clearing the massive, unresolved backlog of applications for leave to remain. While the coalition wishes to convince the electorate that the imposition of a cap means ‘job done’, I fear it fails to address and find solutions to the underlying unease of Britons on the issue of immigration. In the meantime, our globally-competitive universities and businesses are being undermined by a fresh wave of bureaucracy, enticing prospective contributors to the British economy to look elsewhere to study or work.
By the time the inevitable statistics are released closer to the election demonstrating that the imposition of a net migration cap has in fact failed substantially to reduce numbers into the UK, large numbers of ethnic minority voters, many floating voters and substantial numbers of our core vote will be left dismayed. Let us be wise before that event and find a solution to heartfelt immigration concerns from all corners of the UK that does not also damage the economy at a time when growth remains all too elusive.