The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration’s fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference was chaired by Government frontbencher Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon with speakers including Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party Richard Harrington MP, Big Society guru Lord Wei of Shoreditch, London First Chief Executive Baroness Valentine (Crossbench) and Government whip Viscount Younger of Leckie
Richard Harrington MP’s comments at the meeting emphasised the tension between between what many voters wanted in terms of lower immigration but what the economy needed in terms of growth. He said that “the core vote of people who are angry about immigration” use it as “a scapegoat” for many of the worries they have and in this way it becomes a toxic issue to discuss. Harrington represents Watford, a constituency with a diverse economy made up of many family-owned businesses that “could not operate without immigrants”, who often took on the jobs that were shunned by the locals. He continued:
“The reality is that most businesses are populated by hard-working immigrants who are not here to take advantage of people but are the life-blood and oxygen of this country.”
His comments bring a different kind of thinking to the wider immigration debate across mainstream politics. It also projects a deeper understanding of the difficulties of trying to marry up the positives of migration and its negative perceptions in the media, something Harrington referred to as “two pressures”, considering that “people across the world realise that there is work if they want it.” He added that:
“People are very ill-informed and politicians are using migration policy as a way of not promising much but saying to people what they want to hear.”
Viscount Younger of Leckie followed Harrington’s robust exploration of the issues by outlining the obsession the media and government has with the inflow of migration but their lack of “focus” on the outflow and the skills they take with them is the real problem. He said that the UK had “a higher outflow of key skills than Ireland and Germany” and we need to know who is leaving and taking what skills with them and seek to find ways to retain them for the UK’s benefit “as well as training our people”. He added that the UK was in a “global marketplace and needs the skills to be able to compete with Brazil” and other nations.
Viscount Younger’s comments could be difficult to pursue in light of Home Secretary Theresa May’s thinking on curbing European Union migration. May wants to review the free movement of citizens across the EU as part of the Conservative Party’s pledge to hack back powers from the Union. However, given the fact that the UK’s biggest trading partner is the EU, what would this mean for the UK’s competitiveness abroad? Viscount Younger said this brings “another conundrum”:
“There are key export sectors in the UK – including finance, health sciences and engineering. It’s absolutely clear that we need the necessary skills, which is an essential factor in whether companies decide to come to the UK. If we encourage and recruit people into the UK, then it’s more likely that the countries they come from are going to do business with the UK.”
Lord Wei was the lead adviser to David Cameron on the Big Society idea and the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on East Asian Business. He said that there was an impression “out in the country that as Conservatives we must be implacably opposed to immigration.” He pointed out that while negative perceptions of impact on services, schools, and sometimes crime give “negative reactions which we now have to respond to” the value of migration should come through a “nuanced approach from a party political survival perspective.”
Wei outlined three ways to ensure how a nuanced strategy can be successfully delivered by the Conservative Party:
Social enterprise and international development: remittances can be equivalent to a whole year of micro-finance development – the gold-standard for development. Money transfers are one of the most efficient ways of building an economy.
Europe: problematic because we have to focus on non-EU migration. But this is the hardest end of migration. As a Euro-sceptic we are drawing our fire away from Europe and what our relationship with Europe should be. Is free movement a good thing? We need to carry the public along with us.
Electorate: reach out to ethnic minority voters – is the message we are sending out now going to attract Spanish, Chinese and Indian voters in the future? Policies towards China, for example, are still geared towards Fujianese Chinese. But now a huge number of Chinese inflows are wealthy Chinese – people who are millionaires in China.
Baroness Valentine picked up on tourism and the need to “encourage Chinese tourists to come to the UK and not just as business visitors”. Valentine added that the UK cannot go on formulating “immigration policy in the dark” but a system needs to be established that carries clear data on “who is coming and who is going.” She also argued that students should be removed from the migration target and asked “why on earth are we demonising international students?” especially in light of “4 out of top 10 of the best universities in the world” being in the UK.
Valentine also insisted that the cap should be removed as it serves as a barrier to economic recovery. She said “we need to be able to recruit internationally and grow the indigenous workforce” simultaneously, but “that takes time” and having a “fluffy immigration policy” risks “stagnating” the economy as we try to grow our way out of recession.
Business leaders at the meeting outlined the concerns of those they represent and what impacts the immigration cap has had on businesses trying to grow their workforce. Ian Robinson of Fragomen LLP, a global corporate immigration law firm, said “businesses want a system which is quick, and one which provides certainty.” He outlined the problems of having a “system that keeps constantly changing [and as a result] Human Resources people do not know which way to turn”, making it problematic, expensive, and costly to be able to recruit experts from abroad.
Margaret Burton of Deloitte LLP said that immigration needed to be a “much less toxic subject.” There is a need for further debates around immigration in the media and backed the need to have strong “foundations for a good immigration system.”
Julia Onslow-Cole of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP expressed a similar view, although, insisting that “Europe and the US will never regain their position internationally even after an economic recovery.” She added that Africa, China and India “will be the big story of the next 10 years”, which means the UK will lose out on “critical” skills needed for the country’s growth strategy.
Richard Harrington MP agreed with the points from business, adding that the “system should be slick and smooth, and the UKBA should be able to operate with the same efficiency and organisation as any private sector organisation.”
The encouraging and progressive tone of the fringe event was welcomed by the participants. However, with Theresa May’s recent comments about EU migration and with some members of the Conservative Party backbenches referring to the debate around immigration as more nuanced as than the Government’s “blunt” position, the Conservative Party will have a very difficult time trying to persuade on many fronts why the immigration target with its impact on businesses and universities is the right policy to pursue.