Ducking the debate

The environment editor of The Times (London) issues a challenge to those, like spiked, who support an open-door policy on immigration.

Anthony Browne

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It’s a simple question, and one that I have been seeking an answer to for months: why should one of the most densely crowded islands in the world – with congestion problems, over-stretched public services, 1.5million unemployed and a housing crisis – want immigration at such levels that it is quadrupling the rate of population growth and bringing in enough people to fill the city of Cambridge every six months?

I have tried to find the answer in debates with pro-immigrationists on BBC2’s Newsnight, Radio 4’s Today programme, in Prospect magazine, and in extensive email discussions with some very knowledgeable people who support the status quo.

I have tried to get an answer from the Home Office, only to be told that it ‘has no view’ on the appropriate level of immigration – a curious abrogation of responsibility on a key policy that affects almost all aspects of life in the UK, and is clearly of concern to the British public.

It is perhaps scurrilous to note that while the UK Home Office claims to have no view on the desirable level of immigration, net immigration has more than doubled to the highest levels ever witnessed in these isles. It has boosted the UK population by a million in the past seven years, at such an accelerating pace that it brought in 183,000 people in 2000 (and that’s excluding all the illegal ones, which the Immigration Service Union estimates to be about 100,000 a year).

This record level of immigration is coming to a country where thousands of GPs have too many patients, where schools are bursting at the seams, and where local authorities have run out of social housing and are denying accommodation to people who have legal right to it.

There is such a shortage of houses that central government is reducing the right of local authorities to object to having high-density housing programmes forced on them. Public transport in the capital (where most immigrants come) is so packed that London Underground stations close down on a daily basis because overcrowding has become so dangerous.

I thought I might finally get an answer to my question after the new think-tank Migration Watch UK, founded by the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria, published a report that aimed to bring to the public’s attention the scale of immigration into the UK.

On top of the Home Office figures of 180,000 legal immigrants a year, it made a conservative estimate of 65,000 illegal ones. It projected it forward and rounded it down to be extra conservative – concluding that if things carried on as they were, we would get two million immigrants over the next 10 years.

The report was frontpage news in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. But rather than getting an answer to my question, I learned a lot about the tactics of pro-immigrationists to avoid answering difficult questions.

I also learned that secretly they think the current level of immigration is unsustainable – because rather than justify the current level, they were desperate to show that immigration is either lower than it is or will at least fall to a lower level.

The first tactic is to accuse people of scaremongering. On Newsnight I was accused of quoting outrageous figures to frighten people when I said that immigration at the levels we have seen in recent years would push the British population from 60million up to 70million. But all I was doing was quoting the Government Actuary Service’s official projection based on immigration of 195,000 a year. (Alternatively, if we have net immigration of zero, then the government actuary calculates the UK population will grow very gently from 59.8million in 2000 to peak at 60.3million in 2020.)

Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, also made accusations of scaremongering. He said on the Today programme that people who claim there will be two million immigrants over the next 10 years are just ‘scaring the public witless’. He then thundered, presuming that nobody listening could multiply by 10, that in fact legal immigration is just running at 180,000 a year (on top of which we need to add illegals, as usual).

Other pro-immigrantionist groups joined the chorus of ‘scaremongering’. But if the figures are true and if they are scary, then perhaps this is an issue we should at least talk about. It is inevitable that immigration at this level has profound impacts on house-building, public transport, hospitals and schools – yet no one is prepared to talk about it. The thing I find most scary is that we are not debating this issue.

The last thing many pro-immigrationists want to do is debate immigration in anything approaching an intellectually honest manner. So a second tactic was employed – trash the figures.

The Guardian, the Independent and BBC News all went down this route, declaring that the figures didn’t bear up to close scrutiny, fell apart at the seams, and were a ‘swamp of muddled thinking’.

The Home Office joined the charge, and started briefing journalists against what were basically its own figures. This was particularly strange considering that before the furore had broken, I had sent the report to the Home Office to get a reaction, and their statisticians went through it line by line and claimed they had no problem with the figures, except there was no official estimate for illegal immigration.

The criticisms of the figures are little more than wishful thinking of those who would like to convince you that immigration isn’t as high as it is. Some campaigners claimed that the figures didn’t take into account returning British citizens, or the fact that students that come to study in Britain then leave. But the figures did take these things into account – they were net immigration, the difference between those that arrive and leave each year.

There were also desperate attempts to show that immigration will decline. The Government Actuary Service’s assumption that immigration will run at 135,000 (so 1.35million immigrants in the next 10 years) was widely quoted as proof that the two million projection was over the top. But the actuary service has consistently forecast immigration far lower than it has turned out (perhaps for reasons of political expediency), despite the fact that there really is no reason to believe that immigration will fall.

The UK government may be clamping down on abuses of the asylum system. But asylum seekers are still increasingly likely to target the UK as countries across Europe and Australia clamp down much harder. The government has abandoned its target of 30,000 deportations a year as too difficult, while wanting to increase the number of work permits issued from 100,000 to 175,000 each year.

Recent immigrants to the UK also gain rights to bring in relatives, as well as making it easier for their friends to come over by telling them how to do it. Indeed, reading Home Office reports on the issue, it is pretty clear that the government’s own researchers are convinced that this high level of immigration will continue because of these powerful ‘chain migration’ effects.

Having resorted to intellectual dishonesty to hoodwink readers into thinking that immigration is at a lower level than it is, the pro-immigrationists tried another tactic: smear the opposition.

The Independent accused Migration Watch UK of being a ‘nasty little group that deserves to fail’ – despite the fact that Migration Watch UK is the only immigration restrictionist group in the UK, ranged against dozens of publicly funded groups that preach the virtues of unlimited immigration, like the Refugee Council, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and the Immigration Advisory Service.

It seems that by declaring that Migration Watch should fail, the Independent really means that it doesn’t want a debate on immigration: we should all just celebrate it to unlimited levels. As for being nasty, the founder of Migration Watch, Sir Andrew Green, is also chairman of the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians – hardly a nasty man.

The Independent then made the rather bizarre accusation that Migration Watch was playing ‘the numbers game’, which it declared was ‘the oldest trick in the book’. Of course it’s playing the numbers game – immigration is all about numbers. There’s a big difference between immigration of a thousand a year, which wouldn’t bother anyone and have no impact on anything, and immigration of a million a year, which would have a profound impact on just about everything.

Then the Observer, honest enough not to deny the numbers or smear opponents, tried another tactic – not answering the question, but just insisting that some immigration is good, by running a piece on how successful the East African Asians have been. Which no one denies. But there were only 30,000 of them – and we are now getting the equivalent of the entire East African Asian immigration every six weeks.

The interesting thing is that not one pro-immigrationist sought to justify the current level of immigration – they merely denounced those who mentioned it for scaremongering, pretended the level of immigration is lower than it is, and predicted that it would fall. All of this suggests that you can’t justify the current level of immigration. If they could, presumably they would.

The usual arguments for immigration disintegrate upon the most cursory scrutiny. Britain doesn’t have a declining population – there are more births than deaths each year – and that is expected to continue for 20 years; Britain doesn’t have a declining workforce, largely because women’s retirement age is rising from 60 to 65 by 2020. As every authority, including the OECD, the Home Office, the Government Actuary Service, and the Council of Europe, has concluded: immigration is no ‘fix’ for an ageing population, because immigrants grow old too. Immigration increases the size of the economy by increasing the population, but it doesn’t increase the one figure that matters – GDP per capita.

There are no general labour shortages, but according to the Labour Force Survey a total of four million people who want to work are out of work, including many prematurely retired men and 1.5million officially classed as unemployed. There are some skills shortages, but immigrants with the right skills are a tiny proportion of the total immigration of 250,000 a year.

The truth is that Britain doesn’t want or need immigration running at the level it is at the moment: there is no justification for it from the perspective of the natives of these isles. The honest answer is that such high levels of immigration are not in the interests of Britain, but in the interests of the immigrants.

All the record net immigration to Britain is people from the developing world and Eastern Europe, seeking better lives than they can get in their home countries. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s the honest answer to my question – and none of the pro-immigrationists seems prepared to admit it.

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