Nul points for the immigrant points system

Nathalie Rothschild reports from the first meeting of the Migration Parliamentary Group, which wants to lead a ‘positive’ debate about migration. It got off to a bad start.

The Migration Parliamentary Group, which is chaired by Labour MP Jon Cruddas and which held its first meeting yesterday, has been formed to encourage an ‘open and positive debate on migration’. It will focus on ‘the benefits of migration to the UK’s economy and society’. Cruddas’ statement that there is a ‘void on the parliamentary scene’ when it comes to a balanced debate on migration certainly rings true. It is precisely the absence of a positive endorsement of freedom of movement – within and outside of parliament - that we at spiked want to counteract with our recently launched campaign for an open-door policy.

Yet it seems that the biggest threat to a positive view of migrants and their impact on British society comes from within the government itself. Only last year the government introduced new quotas for migrant workers through a stringent points-based system. The government announced a host of measures, including strengthening border controls, introducing ID cards for all immigrants, making greater use of technology such as iris scans to check their identities, and raising the minimum age for a marriage visa from 18 to 21. UK immigration minister Liam Byrne, who opened yesterday’s meeting, kicked off 2008 by outlining tough, or as he put it, ‘compassionate’, new measures to tackle illegal immigration.

It is curious that Byrne and Cruddas should pose as spokesmen for a positive attitude to immigration when their party has done more to slam the door in the face of migrants than any British National Party or Migration Watch member – the bogeymen who, inevitably, were invoked during yesterday’s Migration Parliamentary Group meeting.

A central message of the meeting was that the debate on migration must focus on evidence rather than anecdotes. But despite naming its first meeting ‘Migration: the facts?’, the parliamentary group didn’t exude confidence in its ability to present hard facts on population movements and their impact on British society.

It is true that the immigration debate could do with a dose of rationality and that many non-governmental organisations and charities rely too heavily on personal testimonials that often present migrants as hapless victims. But Byrne risks reducing the question of migration to a cost-benefit analysis: the starting point of a positive debate on migration, he said yesterday, must be its benefits to the economy. ‘I’m a third generation Irish immigrant’, he continued (resorting, after all, to anecdotes), ‘and I believe my forefathers have made great contributions to British society, both economically, culturally and socially’.

Later he added that central to the idea of citizenship is contributing to, and not just taking from, society and that the points system introduced last year is an important framework for tackling illegal immigration. This system determines which skills the UK requires, and then filters out those migrants who are not deemed useful to society. Ironically, if it had been in place at the time when Byrne’s grandparents decided to try to make a better life for themselves in England, thousands of ‘unskilled’ Irish labourers would have been stopped at the border and sent back to a miserable life of subsistence potato farming.

Byrne was right to point out that the debate on immigration shouldn’t simply be about who to let in; it needs to be broadened out so that any new challenges thrown up, in areas such as health and education, can be addressed and dealt with. Yet having talked up the importance of ‘robust policing’, warned that ‘if we don’t take action now the pressure on our borders will continue to grow’, and demanded that newcomers learn English fluently before they come here, Byrne himself came across as rather obsessed with controlling who will and won’t be allowed in.

And as for moving away from the knee-jerk reaction of blaming immigrants for anything that goes wrong in Britain, Byrne and the New Labour government are in fact now making immigrants shoulder the burden of their own profound identity crisis. In his speech, Byrne stated that immigration policy over the past 40 to 50 years has been focused on responding to international changes such as decolonisation or asylum crises. Now, he said, we should concentrate on how to turn newcomers into British citizens. We should have a debate about defining what British values are and how immigrants should adopt them.

How to define Britishness has become an obsession amongst British politicians and think-tanks. Through the rollout of compulsory citizenship tests for migrants and the new demand that they learn to speak English before they even get here, foreigners have to take the consequences of the authorities’ desperate attempts to forge a national identity and to define ‘British values’. By focusing on integrating migrants through irrelevant citizenship ceremonies and tests, New Labour is pushing a narcissistic immigration policy that is all about ‘us’ rather than being based on a humane outlook of solidarity and openness.

Byrne stated that in public discussions, it is arguments on the economy that are likely to be scrutinised most thoroughly, so it’s important that officials arm themselves with hard evidence that highlights migrants’ positive role within the growing economy and the expanding labour market.

It is true that a common argument against free movement is that immigrants put a strain on public services. Only yesterday, the BBC announced that immigration has raised the birth rate so fast that British maternity units ‘can’t cope’ (1). It seems that immigrants are always the scapegoats for the shortcomings of Britain’s own public services. Even so, the notion that immigrants can be ‘good for the economy’ is actually a mainstream one rather than a hotly contested view, as Byrne seems to think. Many are willing to acknowledge that migrants are useful when it comes to taking jobs that Brits don’t want or even that they positively enrich British cultural life. But few are willing to defend the notion that foreigners shouldn’t need to meet any particular economic, social or cultural demands in order to come to Britain.

Yes, immigrants do make positive contributions to society, but individuals are not commodities whose values are determined by market trends. Contrary to Byrne’s claim, this needs to be the starting point of any truly open and positive debate on immigration.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild launched spiked‘s campaign for an open-door policy and asked if the Gatwick No Border Camp was a positive protest. Brendan O’Neill gave three cheers to one million new workers. Frank Furedi took a look at David Cameron’s demographic determinism, and called population control a really bad idea. Neil Davenport said there should be no limit on immigration from Eastern Europe. Or read more at spiked issue Immigration.

(1) Has immigration affected maternity services?, BBC News, 30 January 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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