Leading article: The stench of hypocrisy

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The Independent Online

An unseemly anger against immigrants seems to be boiling over in the country. A speech by Tory leader David Cameron calling for a cap on migrant numbers has been given a warm reception. An underestimation by ministers of the number of foreign workers in Britain has been seized upon with glee by the usual reactionary subjects. And yesterday the Government announced not only that it will retain the restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian immigration, but also that it will plough ahead with its Australian-style points system – a Conservative cast-off – for migrant workers.

In the public debate on this subject, there always seems to be a strong assumption that immigration is something to be feared. Not only is that a slur on the character of the vast majority of immigrants, it flies in the face of the reality of the British economy. It is a debate that demeans us as a nation. Take the blunder over figures. It is certainly embarrassing for ministers that they used the wrong statistics. But consider the implications of the true figures. What they show is that more than half of the new jobs that have been created since 1997 have been filled by immigrants, even more than previously stated. This confirms the crucial role immigration has played in our economic vibrancy. It is this economic contribution that exposes the wrong-headedness of Mr Cameron's protectionist proposal to curb migrant numbers regardless of the demand for their labour. Is this the party that prides itself on its free-market principles?

The Government has been just as hypocritical. While taking credit for strong economic growth, it is dancing to the tune of the anti-immigrant lobby. The restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania fly in the face of the principle of free movement of labour within the EU. Meanwhile, the points system will discriminate unfairly against unskilled workers from outside the EU; one also wonders if ministers are really best-placed to dictate to the marketplace over hiring policies.

One argument from the anti-immigrant lobby that contains an element of truth is that immigration puts a strain on housing and transport. But whose fault is it if the Government has failed to build enough houses and neglected the national transport infrastructure? Ministers should concentrate on how best to absorb the inflow of migrants rather than dreaming up devious ways of keeping down numbers. After all, immigrants have put more than enough into the Exchequer in the form of tax revenues over the years to pay for these improvements. But, sadly, such a rational approach seems a distant prospect while our society insists on regarding immigration as a problem rather than a benefit.

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