1 October 2014

‘How do you make promises you can keep on immigration?’ fringe panel asked

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“Immigration – how can we make promises we can keep?” was the exam question posed by British Future and ConservativeHome to a fringe panel at Conservative Party conference.

Sitting this tricky paper were the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, former Environment Secretary; Mark Field, MP for Westminster and the City; Isabel Oakeshott, former Sunday Times political editor turned biographer of the PM; and Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future. ConHome’s Paul Goodman invigilated.

Mark Field kicked off by saying “we need a more nuanced immigration system than the current net migration target.” The target damages the government’s credibility, he added, when it not met.

Isabel Oakeshott had phoned a friend. She told the room that she had asked every MP she could find at conference how to meet the target and none had the answer. Any target based on a hard number, she concluded, wasn’t advisable. Ministers should admit the scale of challenge, she said, and also their own failure to meet a self-imposed target. “If we’re going to make promises we keep,” she said, “we should avoid putting numbers on it altogether.”

British Future’s Sunder Katwala disagreed: “The answer to a missed target isn’t to abandon targets altogether. Targets matter for democracy; they help the public hold the government to account.”

Where trust is undermined, he added, is when governments make promises that they don’t – or can’t – keep.

Addressing the exam question head-on, he proposed a three-point plan: set targets for the immigration that is within your control; only target immigration that you want to control; and set those targets at a level you can actually achieve.

He conceded this isn’t as easy as he just made it sound. “Immigration is a difficult issue if you want to govern the country,” he said, “less so if you just want to come up with slogans on TV and win a couple of seats.”

Owen Paterson agreed that immigration isn’t an easy topic. “There are no easy, quick-fix answers,” he said. Even countries outside the EU are finding it difficult, he added, with a higher proportion of migrants in their population than Britain – 23% in Australia compared to 14% in the UK. The Swiss, he said, are in “an awful muddle” after their referendum on immigration quotas.

“Immigration is needed for a successful economy,” Paterson added. “You cannot run an open economy, and grow that economy, without it.”

Copying Australia’s points-based immigration system may sound to some like the answer but it’s one that Paterson described as “Glib and Ukippish”.

Katwala added that integration is vital if immigration is to work well for Britain and secure public consent. There was agreement among the panel that English language proficiency was particularly important.

Mark Field described the English language as the key to integration, one that enhances economic opportunities for migrants while promoting integration. He said we should spend less on translating official documents into other languages and more on encouraging people to learn English.

“If we want to improve integration we should look to our schools,” said Isabel Oakeshott, emphasising that they should prepare children for life in modern society.

As Paul Goodman asked people to stop writing and collected up the papers, he thanked the participants for taking on a question that all agreed was well beyond GCSE level. Summing up their answers, he noted a growing recognition on the political right that at least some immigration is needed for the continuing growth of our economy; and a welcome willingness to get past ‘we can’t talk about it’ to engage constructively with the issue of immigration in modern Britain. Top marks all round.

Read Andrew Gimson’s report on the event for ConHome’s here.

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