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Let’s take immigration seriously

A “declaration on population” has been issued today, signed by a 20 parliamentarians, including Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury and Lady Boothroyd, the former Commons speaker. Its headline is “70 million is too many” – a reference to an Office of National Statistics projectionthat predicted the UK population would reach that level by 2029 if recent trends continue.
But whatever the headline, the aim of the declaration is really to call for stringent limits on immigration. It is high immigration which the signatories say will have “a significant impact on our public services, our quality of life and on the nature of our society”. While much of the projected population growth is a result, directly or indirectly, of immigration, you have to wonder if the signatories of the declaration are really concerned about population projections as such. If the population was growing fast because many more British-born couples were choosing to have large families, would they have made their intervention?
Lord Carey was today advocating a values-based immigration policy that might produce a higher proportion of Christian immigrants. It is not just numbers of immigrants that are of concern, it seems, it is also types.
That aside, the main thrust of the declaration is to call on party leaders to commit in their manifestos to reduce net annual immigration to below 40,000, returning to levels last seen in the early 1990s.
At present, because Britain is in recession, net immigration is flattening out anyway. If the economic recovery is slow, this trend could continue. But setting an arbitrary limit on numbers is, as the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Chris Huhne said at a recent Institute for Public Policy Research debate, akin to “Stalinist state planning”. How do we know how many immigrants the UK economy might need in any one year? A cap could be very damaging for businesses needing skilled personnel to compete in the global economy. So going back to the immigration levels of the 1990s might help slow population growth, but at the price of pushing the economy backwards too.
Moreover, it is not clear how any future government could keep net immigration below 40,000 a year. The UK now has quite a tight system for the management of immigration, but there are constraints on our ability to control inflows when we are part of an interconnected global economy in which capital, goods and people can move fast. If the Balanced Migration group is serious in its call, it needs to be able to answer some difficult questions.
We have free movement of people within the EU: do the signatories want to stop that? We are signatories to the UN convention on refugees: do they want the UK to withdraw from it? A lot of people arrive as a result of family reunion: do we want to stop settled immigrants being able to bring in their families? Foreign students studying at UK universities account for a substantial proportion of immigrant numbers – but surely this is good for the higher education sector and national prestige?
The institute’s debate saw the home secretary and his two shadows discussing the sensitive subject of immigration in an open and constructive manner – with the focus on realistic solutions. This is the way to address the sophisticated and complex business of managing migration in the 21st century, not ill thought-through, backward-looking declarations such as this one, which risk stoking up anti-immigrant sentiment.

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