John Humphrys - Immigration. How much is too much?

November 24, 2023, 2:03 PM GMT+0

If there was one single slogan that swung the referendum in favour of Brexit it was “take back control”. We all knew what “control” meant. Control of our borders. A vote to leave the EU meant a vote to cut immigration. Reduce the number of foreigners coming to live here. That was 2016. Seven years have passed and the precise opposite has happened. The UK voted to leave but the number is higher than it has ever been. So high that even government ministers themselves say the latest figures are unacceptable. Do you agree?

The simple fact is that in the past two years net migration has increased the country’s population by 1.3 million. On Thursday, the Office for National Statistics sharply upgraded its estimate for how many people came to the UK last year from 606,000 to 745,000. That’s a record high. It means that 139,000 more people have come to live in Britain than previously thought.

Let’s deal with one of the exaggerated claims that tend to influence this debate. The “small boats” with their cargos of illegal immigrants are not the reason for the size of the increase. Of course they add to the overall total but their numbers are tiny compared with those who come here perfectly legally, many of whom choose to stay. Again perfectly legally.

The Times makes a comparison with the United States, a country which is traditionally regarded as the most ethnically diverse of all western countries. All the more surprising then, it notes, that Britain boasts a higher proportion of foreign-born residents than America. A total of more than 10 million. That’s 15 per cent of our population. It’s roughly twice as many as it was ten years ago.

What makes that even more remarkable, according to political observers, is that the Conservatives have been in power for the past 13 years and for every one of those years has promised to control immigration one way or the other. Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, is just one of many ministers who regard these latest figures as unacceptable. Rishi Sunak is coming under a lot of pressure from them and his own backbenchers to do something about it. Something that will start producing results urgently – not least because we shall be going to the polls in the next year or so and immigration matters a lot to an awful lot of voters.

One of the proposals, pushed by Suella Braverman when she was Home Secretary, would sharply increase the minimum salary a would-be immigrant needs to earn to get a skilled worker visa. At the moment it’s £26,220, which is well below the national median wage for full-time workers of £35,000. Another would put a cap on the huge number of foreign students staying in this country after they have completed their studies. Another would limit the number of family members foreign workers can bring with them. In the past year there were about 155,000 such workers. They brought about 190,000 dependents with them.

Braverman points out that the statistics show the extra people we have allowed in over the past years are equivalent to a city the size of Birmingham and the pressure on housing, the NHS, schools, wages, and community cohesion, is unsustainable. She calls it a “slap in the face to the British public who have voted to control and reduce migration at every opportunity” and she asks: “When do we say: enough is enough?” Tory right-wing backbenchers who call themselves the “New Conservatives” have described it as a “do or die” moment in the nation’s history. And it’s not only right wingers who are worried about the figures. The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called them “shockingly high”.

Political point scoring? Inevitably. And of course many of the measures proposed to cut the number of legal immigration would carry a heavy cost. It’s true that 250,000 of them are students and they impose a burden on the state for obvious reasons – but they also bring huge benefits. It’s estimated that our university sector brings in some £42 billion a year from overseas and, as the Times points out, it is a big ­component of this country’s soft power.

And as for the health service, it’s hard to imagine how our hospitals and care homes could possibly manage without all the nurses and carers who come from overseas. There is, of course, the profoundly moral question to be addressed as to whether it is right for a rich country like ours to “poach” nurses and, indeed, doctors from much poorer countries who arguably need them much more than we do. Is it right that those third-world countries should bear the serious costs of training them only for us to benefit?

The other great moral question is whether we could or should impose limits on those who seek sanctuary in this country because their homeland is no longer safe for them. How many of us have serious doubts about the 33,000 Ukrainians who fled here after Putin’s ruinous invasion? Or the 47,000 who fled from Hong Kong when the Chinese government decided to crack down there. And how many of us would have turned away Afghan interpreters who faced certain death for having helped our own forces when they served in their country?

The right-wing academic, Professor Matt Goodwin of Kent University, accepts that those are “humanitarian gestures” that we should celebrate. But he does not celebrate what he calls the “legions of Leftie lawyers who fight every immigration case tooth and claw, the French police and coastguard who stand idly by as their unwanted migrants take to small boats and head for Britain and the appalling ineffectiveness of civil servants in the Home Office.”

There is also, he says, one central issue that cannot be ignored. That is this country’s acute labour shortage. Goodwin is not alone in worrying about that – and it’s not only fruit pickers that this country needs for a few months in the summer and autumn. He points out that there are a record 2.6 million people claiming long-term sickness benefits. The government, he says, has become so lax on immigration in a “foolhardy attempt to get the economy growing by filling these roles — since so many native Britons appear reluctant to leave the dole queue.”

Many of these, he concedes, will be unable to go back to work but others should be supported to return to the workforce. He says the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is to be congratulated for introducing measures in his Autumn Statement that encourage people who can work from home to do so.

So what about “taking back control” of our borders from the European Union? The reality is that the overwhelming majority of our immigrants come from outside the European Union and always have. Of 1.2 million people who migrated to Britain last year an overwhelming majority — 968,000 — came from outside the EU. The top five sources of migrants are now India, Nigeria, China, Pakistan and Ukraine and, says Goodwin and others, are doing jobs that people here should be taking up in the first place. Many, of course, bring relatives with them.

As for those who come to study, the Office for National Statistics says many are ‘staying for longer and transitioning on to work visas’.

Tory right-wingers are not alone in believing that immigration is not only the top priority for right-wingers. Surveys suggest it is the third most important issue for all voters. That’s because, in Goodwin’s words, it “disproportionately undermines the wages and financial security of working people and the non-graduate majority. It drives up housing costs and rent, and makes it much harder for those already here to access social housing and public services such as schools, GP surgeries and hospitals.”

It is also, he believes fuelling populism, with millions of people “coming to the conclusion that the things they care deeply about — such as national identity, culture, values and ‘the British way of life’ — are being sacrificed by a political class which either struggles to relate to them or simply does not care.”

Does that describe your attitude? Should the government be doing much more to discourage immigrants from making this country their new home or even impose a five-year moratorium on all new immigration as some propose? Or do you believe that we should make them welcome?

Do let me know.

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