Let in more immigrants: we need them and they will enrich us all

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It is more than a generation since a member of a British government said anything positive about the contribution that higher immigration could make to this country, so Barbara Roche's speech yesterday at the Institute for Public Policy Research deserves a warm welcome - even if she was the minister who distastefully described the begging technique of asylum seekers as "vile". Launching what she billed as a "grown-up debate', Ms Roche indicated that a modest liberalisation of the immigration rules for the highly skilled is on the cards. Against the background of the very juvenile debate being conducted in some quarters about "bogus" asylum seekers and "floods" of immigrants, it is perhaps understandable that the Government should want to move cautiously. But what the British economy needs is a far bolder step.

It is more than a generation since a member of a British government said anything positive about the contribution that higher immigration could make to this country, so Barbara Roche's speech yesterday at the Institute for Public Policy Research deserves a warm welcome - even if she was the minister who distastefully described the begging technique of asylum seekers as "vile". Launching what she billed as a "grown-up debate', Ms Roche indicated that a modest liberalisation of the immigration rules for the highly skilled is on the cards. Against the background of the very juvenile debate being conducted in some quarters about "bogus" asylum seekers and "floods" of immigrants, it is perhaps understandable that the Government should want to move cautiously. But what the British economy needs is a far bolder step.

There are widespread shortages of workers with certain skills: teachers, doctors, computer programmers and would-be entrepreneurs. Yet to focus on narrow definitions of skill is a mistake. A long Whitehall list of the computer skills in short supply - available on the DfEE website - reveals the sheer Soviet-style absurdity of having civil servants estimate how many employees of certain types are needed by British businesses. The employers themselves do not know who they will need in six months' time. Nor does any official know what qualities a would-be immigrant, or their children, will turn out to have. Some of the greatest contributions to the British economy and culture have come from people who landed on these shores without either formal qualifications or assets, but with a determination to work hard.

What's more, in the tightest labour market for 20 years, there are shortages of all along the skill scale. The booming economy would have forced the Bank of England to put up interest rates further and faster were it not for the large numbers of foreign-born workers, legal and illegal, in London. The shortages are worst in the public sector, where pay has lagged behind for a decade. Hospitals need care assistants, porters and skilled doctors and nurses. More immigration, without qualification, will be needed to sustain public services.

All the evidence is that immigrants bring their host countries economic benefits. The fear that one more job for a foreigner is one less for a Briton is false. An improved labour supply allows faster growth and generates more jobs. Of course we should seek to improve the skills and qualifications of Britons struggling in the labour market. But the more available workers and the higher their skill levels, the better it is for everyone.

Nor do immigrants, contrary to popular myth, scrounge off the state. Few are entitled to benefits, few want to claim them, and because a high proportion of them are of working age, on balance, they pay more in taxes than they consume in public services.

Perhaps most important in a modern economy is the contribution that foreign workers can make to the generation of new ideas. Innovation demands surprising juxtapositions and connections. A greater variety of people can have a big economic pay-off, a fact recognised by the 73 per cent of businesses in a recent London Chamber of Commerce survey that reckoned the capital's cultural diversity was its main advantage as a location. The businessmen got to the bottom line ahead of the politicians and the public. More immigration will make us all the richer in many ways.

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