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Immigration

Speech to Cambridge Union Society - Thursday, 24th April 2008

Mr. President

At a conservative estimate it is some forty-three years since I stood in this chamber. I was delighted to receive the Society's invitation. All I can say, Mr. President, is "What took you so long?".

I was on a flight to Strasbourg recently, doing the Telegraph cross-word, and wrestling with a clue that read "Immigration policy, 4-4". The solution was "Open Door". And sadly, that reflects the reality of British immigration policy today.

The overall numbers are staggering: since Labour came to power in 1997, a stunning 5 million immigrants have come to Britain. This is by far the largest influx in recorded history.

Let me clear a few misconceptions out of the way to start with. No sensible person is opposed to immigration in principle. It is a truism that we are a nation of immigrants. My own family history, probably apocryphal, is that we came over to Britain with Flemish weavers in the seventeenth century. Certainly Helmer seems to be a Dutch name.

This debate is absolutely not about race, or ethnicity, or religion. It is only partly about skills. More than anything else, it is about numbers. We should be grateful to Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and himself of Guyanese origin, for decontaminating the immigration debate. Not long ago, it was impossible even to mention immigration without the rabid left foaming with shouts of racism, and for decades they stifled rational debate. Even now, I commend the courage of the Union Society in tabling the motion.

Trevor Philips criticised "multiculturalism" and asserted that Britain is "sleep-walking towards segregation". Multiculturalism is a term that has obscured the real issues for decades. If it means that diverse groups of citizens in our country should co-exist in mutual respect, that they form part of a cohesive British society, and that we can get a decent curry on the High Street, then I take it we are all in favour of multiculturalism. But in reality it means a ghettoised society in which minorities are isolated, speak only their indigenous languages, fail to engage with wider society, and too often harbour misconceptions and resentments which lead to serious consequences.

The implication of Trevor Phillips' remarks is that we should promote integration, not multiculturalism. Of course immigrants are welcome to retain their indigenous culture which enriches the whole of our society, but they should also be encouraged to speak our language and to identify with the broader values of our country.

The problem we face is the sheer volume of immigration, and this is creating issues for employment, housing, health, education, welfare -- the whole range of our social services.

For years it has been difficult to get reliable figures on employment. But a new report from the Office for National Statistics tells us that since 2004, when ten new accession states joined the EU, employment of UK-born workers has dropped by half a million. And their places have been taken by immigrants.

So do I blame the immigrants? Not a bit of it. They have made perfectly rational decisions, and in their place, I daresay I should have done the same. No. I blame a welfare system that has made it relatively attractive to be unemployed, and a tax credit system that has applied marginal tax rates of up to 75% on low-paid workers. I blame an education system that has failed to deliver basic skills, and a benefit system that discourages initiative and validates idleness.

As Simon Heffer trenchantly put it, "We have an underclass because we have decided to pay for one".

After employment comes housing. The government plans to build 3 million new houses over the next 12 years. Credible estimates from the think-tank Migration Watch suggest that around 30% of these houses are needed for immigrants. Together with their associated infrastructure, they will eat up many square miles of countryside. Britain is already one of the most densely populated countries in Europe and population pressures are becoming intense. The environmental implications are serious.

The pressure group Optimal Population Trust believes that the maximum UK population sustainable in the long term may be below 30 million. Today we have 60 million. On current trends we may be at 70 million by 2030.

Then there is health. The sheer numbers add to the demand on our health services. And at risk of infuriating the old left, let me add, simply as a matter of fact, that some recent immigrant groups do suffer higher rates of communicable diseases, including tuberculosis, hepatitis B and HIV, than the indigenous population.

There is also the issue of health tourism. A colleague of mine used to practice as a psychiatrist in London before he became an MEP -- I have to say you often need a psychiatrist in the parliament -- and he used to get a high proportion of recent immigrants in his London practice. Many admitted that they had come to Britain for free treatment which they could not obtain, or could not afford, at home.

It may give us a cosy self-righteous glow to think that we are providing free medical treatment to the world, but we have to ask how long we can expect the hard-pressed tax-payer to foot the bill.

In education, the very high numbers of children with limited English language skills are creating vast problems. In no fewer than 1,300 schools across our land, children with English as a first language are in a minority. This puts great pressure on schools, teachers, and budgets, and diverts vital teaching resources from English speaking children. Again, the problem is not foreigners. The problem is numbers.

Another key factor is the spouses and other family members brought to the UK by immigrants. Often the result of long-distance arranged marriages, these include poorly educated women from South Asian villages, with little English, who find it very difficult to integrate into British society. For myself, I am strongly in favour of families, and I should be the last person to stand in the way of family reunions. But I am not clear why these reunions have to take place in Bradford rather than Bangladesh.

The numbers create a double burden for our welfare system, both to support those immigrants who fail to find jobs, and to support the UK-born unemployed whose potential jobs are filled by immigrants. It is perfectly reasonable that Polish workers drawing child benefit should remit over 20 million annually to children back in Poland, but the negative media coverage creates resentment, especially among poorer English people.

It is the established immigrants in our community who have most to lose from these attitudes. Of course these stories should not breed resentment against established minorities in our country, but the fact is that they do, and these minorities are amongst those most apprehensive at the consequences of unchecked immigration.

My good friend and colleague Syed Kamall is a London MEP of swarthy complexion and South Asian origin. He tells the story of his return to the UK from Brussels, when he found that he had mislaid his passport. He explained to immigration about his passport, and was taken to a side room for interview. The immigration officer said "Now don't you worry sir. Welcome to Britain. Here are temporary papers, a work permit and a National Insurance Number, and a hotel voucher. Let us know if you need a car, and we'll see if we can fix you up".

OK, so it's an apocryphal story, but it illustrates an urban myth that is driven by large-scale immigration, and is damaging to race relations and cohesion in our country.

But if unlimited immigration creates huge welfare and social problems, why does the government allow it? It could be that a progressive leftist mind-set thinks that immigration is intrinsically or ideologically good. With all the problems that the government has faced on large scale IT systems and massive losses of personal data, it could be that the government is just terminally incompetent. Some say that Labour expects immigrants to vote for them, so it wants to maximise their numbers. One explanation I heard a while back is that Tony Blair has always hated the British working class, so he decided to import a new one of his own.

I think the truth is, that it just slipped off their radar, during all those years when merely to mention immigration was to prove oneself racist. And when Labour finally grasped what had happened, and started to get negative feed-back from door-steps and focus groups, the spin machine went into post-rationalisation hyper-drive.

Look at the benefits, they said. Look at the way the health service depends on foreign doctors and nurses. Indeed it does, and there is no doubt that skilled -- and unskilled -- immigrant workers do a vital job in many areas of our economy.

But let's stop and ask a deeper question. Why do we need to import skilled workers for these posts? It can only be because there is something deeply wrong with our education system, and indeed in the whole social consensus that places too little value on self-confidence and self-reliance, or work and achievement.

So let us be grateful for the skilled immigrants who are prepared to come and tide us over, but let us also address the ingrained problems in our own society -- and let us remember that today at least, there are in fact hundreds of British-trained doctors who are unable to find posts in the health service, a living monument to the failure of state central planning. Let us also remember that every Philippina nurse working in Manchester is one less working in Manila. We have hoovered-up health workers from around the world, to the detriment of countries poorer than our own.

But, says the government, look at the huge benefits to the British economy. They said this without giving us any serious analysis, but fortunately the House of Lords, in a typically thoughtful and thorough study last month, has given us the answer.

Their Lordships find that immigration has increased population, and increased GDP pro rata. So the increase in GDP per capita leaves each one of us no better off. And this calculation fails to account for increased pressure on social services, crowding, congestion, and pollution.

This University's very own Professor Rowthorn gave evidence to the Lords, saying "If you increase population by 5%, then sooner or later GDP will increase by 5%, but that may not affect GDP per capita. In terms of our own self-interest, do we have an interest in a bigger GDP?".

Adair Turner, a member of the House of Lords, is a man of impeccable New Labour credentials, never guilty of political incorrectness, and now an adviser to Gordon Brown. In a recent paper, he accuses Ministers of exaggerating the economic benefits of immigration in a cynical move to justify the inevitable and uncontrollable influx, and to avoid the resulting "racial backlash".

The argument that immigration increases prosperity is shot. The argument that we need immigration to solve labour shortages is difficult to sustain, given that the level of unfilled vacancies has hovered around 600,000 for years. The argument for multiculturalism in the traditional sense has lost all credibility.

So what to do? There are four main categories of immigrants. First, asylum seekers. It is too easy simply to say "Let 'em all come". The 1951 Convention on asylum seekers and refugees was designed for a different world, with limited air travel and far smaller numbers.

Today's problems are exacerbated by sustained efforts from the left to devalue the criteria for asylum. It used to be only those who were under threat from the organs of the state who could qualify. Now it's anyone with a grievance.

We used to require high standards of evidence. Now there is pressure to give the benefit of the doubt to unverifiable stories, and would-be claimants are coached by traffickers to give stories that can't be checked. It should not be down to the British tax-payer to fund endless appeals procedures, and the burden of proof must rest with the claimant.

At the very least we need to raise the threshold for claims. We may need to see if the Convention of 1951 needs amendment to cope with the 21st century.

Then there are EU citizens. Of course EU citizens have made a great contribution to our economy. In particular the Poles and other East Europeans have earned high praise for their work ethic. But we have to consider whether we can sustain an open-ended commitment indefinitely -- and we need to consider the negative impact on Eastern Europe. We have a treaty obligation to accept "European Citizens". But in the Conservative Party at least we are committed to changing several aspects of our relationship with the EU, including the damaging Social Chapter and aspects of the ECHR which hamper anti-terrorist policy. The time has come to look again at the open door for EU citizens.

Thirdly there are economic migrants. Many have much to offer: too many create problems. There is an emerging consensus that we need tighter controls. I believe there should be an annual limit which should be agreed publicly between government and employers.

Finally, there are illegals. Compared to continental countries we are fortunate. We are an island. If we decided to do so, we could control our borders. All we lack is the political will. We should scrap the planned expenditure on ID cards, and spend the money instead policing our borders not only for illegal immigrants, but for drugs and people traffickers too.

So finally, Mr. President, to conclude. Immigration is a good thing, but we have too much of a good thing. We have a government which has allowed a problem to grow out of hand, and now seeks to justify itself retrospectively, rather than seeking to deal with the issue. The sheer numbers are unprecedented, and are now a threat to social cohesion and the welfare of our people. I beg leave to commend the Motion to the House.