Why we Conservatives must lose our perceived hostility to immigration - and get rid of the cap on immigrant numbers

The UK runs a real risk of losing its hard-won standing as a country that welcomes trade, investment and talent from around the world

Share

This nation’s economic future depends on our taking the right approach towards those who wish to work, study and contribute here.

Flexibility in a country’s immigration system is now part and parcel of being an engaged member of the global economy. International businesses and business people, not to mention academics, expect to be able to move with relative ease between open, dynamic and flexible global cities - just as many Britons would anticipate being able to work in Hong Kong, New York, Shanghai or Mumbai for a spell. Those countries which restrict this movement risk economic isolation in this age of globalisation.        

Similarly, students who come to Britain even for a year or two become ambassadors for the UK for the rest of their lives. These are often the very people returning home to set up successful businesses or to play a leading role in public life. Their affiliation with and affection for Britain is a future asset we should not throw away.

Naturally, we need to make sure that those who come to live in our country come to benefit Britain, not to sign up for British benefits. We must be mindful of the need to use our migration system to boost the competitiveness of British companies, not undermine the job prospects of lower skilled British workers. And we need to be much more serious about making integration work, for every generation and every community in our country.

All of that is what managed migration should mean. Neither an absence of controls, nor a raised drawbridge. Just sensible, rational, planned policy. 

Ducking the debate

For years our nation’s politicians ducked honest discussion on immigration. Public resentment and anger fast filled the policy vacuum. As that resentment has boiled over in recent years, so the political pendulum has swung erratically the other way. The rumbling threat of UKIP has only stiffened the resolve of mainstream parties to keep tough talk on immigration firmly on the front pages. In such a febrile atmosphere it has become almost impossible to have the rational debate we need. That is why we have decided to set up a new group, Conservatives for Managed Migration, to promote a calm, reasoned discussion about immigration both within and beyond the Conservative Party.

It is a crucial debate for two reasons. First, the current immigration crackdown has serious implications for our nation and our economy. A cap on numbers is not only undeliverable but leads to an unhealthy focus on headline figures that is disconnected from reality. Since the government has precious few tools at its disposal to stem the tide of EU nationals, refugees and asylum seekers, efforts to decrease numbers inevitably rest on keeping out many of the most desirable types of non-EU migrant – talented entrepreneurs, academics and business people. When government fails to meet its own targets, voter distrust is only reinforced.

Time and again in my constituency work businesses and globally-competitive universities tell me of the barriers they face in securing entry to Britain for the people we should be welcoming.

There is no cap on international student places, but the government’s explicit objective has been to reduce their number as a means of bringing net migration to under 100,000 by the next election. The treatment of student and post-study work visas has now become a cause of regular complaint amongst top universities in my constituency with prospective overseas academic staff now preferring to move to the US and Australia.

These complaints are echoed by senior business people fed up with the hoops that top flight non-EU nationals are having to jump through. Either to come here or to stay for any length of time. Complex, lengthy and costly visa processes, interminable queues at our borders, and long journeys to get approvals at far-flung overseas embassies all cause additional headaches. It is a cliché that a reputation takes years to build but can be lost in an instant. However, the UK runs a real risk of losing its hard-won standing as a country that welcomes trade, investment and talent from around the world at a time when we most need international expertise and capital.

 

Second, the relentless focus on immigration by the Conservative Party seems to the outsider to border on near-obsession. The implicit message to the electorate is that my Party is fundamentally hostile to those who were not born here. Indeed that the presence of settled migrant communities has been an historical mistake. This in spite of the fact that many immigrants to Britain demonstrate just the kind of enterprise and family values that should make them natural Tory voters.

In the General Elections of 2001 and 2005, William Hague and Michael Howard respectively made a crackdown on immigration the centrepiece of the Tory campaign.  At least then we cornered the market as the only Party taking a hard line on migrant numbers. That is not going to be the case when we go to the polls during the next year.  In short, we cannot out-UKIP UKIP on immigration. Especially as we are not going to match their offer of withdrawal from the EU.

Hostile to immigrants?

The other harsh electoral truth which the Party must face is that the number of immigrants on the electoral roll gets markedly bigger year by year. What is the Conservative message to these voters? One of the most alarming statistics I have read in recent weeks, is that Labour are outpolling the Tories three to one among Polish nationals voting here in the EU elections. It is hard to believe that this is unrelated to perceived Conservative hostility towards both immigrants and the European Union.  

My Party has always thrived most when it has adapted to or led change in Britain.  For all of my concern about the raw demographic statistics, we must remember that those who have or will come to our shores are not numbers - they are people.  People who are hardly going to embrace our Party us if we rarely seen to embrace them.

It is now time to move on from the Dutch auction that takes place at election time over immigration. It serves none of us well as politicians, and is certainly not in the interests of our nation as a whole.   

The Government has made some very sensible and pragmatic improvements to our migration system. Abuses have been cracked down on - bogus colleges, sham marriages, health tourists – and the Home Office is stopping the endless cycle of legal appeals for rejected applications. The government has also been striving to address some of the so-called ‘pull’ factors which have made Britain such an appealing destination for those exploiting our generous health and benefits systems. Ministers must be congratulated for all those measures, which were long, long overdue.

Headline numbers

But we should acknowledge that there is a fundamental problem with having a net migration policy that targets headline numbers alone. Few voters believe we can deliver on it. Few businesses regard it as practical. It risks sending the wrong signals about our openness to the world. Ironically, the objective also makes us victims of our own success – the more our economy outperforms those of our European neighbours, so that more people want to come here and fewer leave, the more we are apparently “failing” to deliver a key policy.

The government has a positive story to tell in so many critical areas - on the economy….on education…on welfare. With the immigration cap not matching that success, it should no longer form a key plank of our electoral offering.

So the group we launch today – Conservatives for Managed Migration – will aim to rebalance the national debate on this key issue. We must avoid hysterical reactions to the problems of the last decade, when migration did indeed drift out of control. Neither should we be aiming to recreate a Britain as it was in the 1950s. We must and we shall make the positive case for welcoming those who can make our country greater, and for putting in place realistic systems that can regain business and public trust. We believe that in doing so we can make both our nation, and our Party, stronger.

This is an excerpt from a speech given today by Mark Field MP.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Security Advisor – Permanent – Surrey - £60k-£70k

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

MI Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – £25k-£35k

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Geography Teacher

£100 - £160 per day + mileage and expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: This out...

KS2 supply teacher

£80 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recruiting fo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Abortions based solely on gender are illegal in Britain  

Abortion is safe, and it should be as available as easily as contraception

Ann Furedi
Photo issued by Flinders University of an artist's impression of a Microbrachius dicki mating scene  

One look at us Scots is enough to show how it was our fishy ancestors who invented sex

Donald MacInnes
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album