John Bercow: Conservative immigration policy is simply wrong

We should call for an end to the scandal of arbitrary removals of asylum-seekers
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The Independent Online

Conservatives should acknowledge that important parts of our immigration and asylum policies in the 2005 election were wrong for the country and damaging to the attempted recovery of the party.

The call for an annual limit on immigration was a mistake. Given that we have furiously denounced targets, quotas and limits imposed by New Labour in so many other areas, it was bizarre to demand a fixed limit to immigration. Most immigrants come to the UK to work. Labour market flexibility is vital to a successful economy. Demand and supply can fluctuate, often sharply and suddenly. Any government limit would be mere arbitrary guesswork.

Aside from the cultural benefits of a multiracial society, there is a powerful economic case. Immigrants are incoming assets for at least three reasons. First, in a global economy, their labour is vital both to tackle severe skills shortages and to fill long-term vacancies. Immigrants are not taking jobs that British workers could fill, but jobs which British workers are unable or unwilling to do. Second, the idea that immigration is an intolerable burden on the taxpayer and the welfare state is baloney. Immigrants give far more than they take. It is estimated that they make a net contribution to the economy of £2.5bn, account for more than 10 per cent of the income tax take and are disproportionately employed in the public services. Third, as our population shrinks and ages, immigration is vital to staving off a pensions' crisis.

Contrary to the apocalyptic warnings that immigration from the new EU member states would damage our economy or social fabric, the new admissions have been a blessing for Britain. They have contributed hundreds of millions of pounds to this country. Public policy has been a triumph of open markets and my party should be bold and humble enough to say so.

The new points system was a Conservative idea and the Government is wise to adopt it. Ministers must reiterate that economic migration is not a burden but an indispensable feature of a successful trading nation.

As for asylum, the Conservative proposal to withdraw from the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and to place a cap on the number of refugees to enter the UK was as misconceived and unattractive as any we have made in recent times. No other country has ever withdrawn from the Convention. Had the UK done so unilaterally, we would have suffered incalculable harm to our reputation. Moreover, a fixed quota would be arbitrary and cruel. Many electors recoiled from what they regarded as a harsh policy that would generate fear and risk harm to people who should be able to look to this country for protection.

Conservative asylum policy should now change in three important ways. First, the restrictions on asylum-seekers' right to work should be lifted. At present, thousands of asylum-seekers trained as doctors, engineers, scientists and other professionals are prevented from using their skills, earning a living and benefiting Britain. This enforced idleness is bad for them, bad for the taxpayer and bad for the economy. The Conservative Party has always prided itself on its belief in the work ethic, free enterprise and self-reliance. There is a powerful case for allowing asylum-seekers to work and it is high time that we made that case.

Second, we should call for an end to the growing scandal of arbitrary and unsafe removals of failed asylum-seekers. Ministers admit that they do not routinely monitor the well-being of those they have removed. Instead, they subcontract that duty to non-government organisations which cannot and should not be expected to do the Government's dirty work. Given our historic belief in the dignity of the individual and the primacy of good government, Conservatives should challenge Ministers at every turn to guarantee the safety of returnees.

Third, let us recognise that the Common European Asylum Policy is a serious attempt to tackle a problem which has implications for asylum-seekers, EU governments and all citizens. Simply to dismiss all EU policy as the route map to a superstate is unworthy. Some harmonisation to tackle asylum shopping and share responsibility for asylum-seekers between member states is desirable.

The primary reason to change Conservative policies on immigration and asylum is that, in important respects, they are wrong and could be improved. The secondary reason is that a more balanced approach would cause many voters, who reject the party, to think of us afresh. Economic opportunity and effective internationalism have historically been important parts of a Conservative approach. It is time to reinstate them.

The writer is a Conservative MP

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