Immigrants saved my family and are crucial to Britain

Published in the London Evening Standard (October 11th, 2011)

One unexpected aspect of life as the parent of a profoundly disabled teenager is that at times it is almost like running a small business, with a raft of people helping provide round-the-clock care. They must all be trained, trustworthy and pleasant, since they spend so long in your home and with your child.

In recent days we have been trying to find people for night work. It is never easy: caring for a child with a life-threatening condition is challenging, the hours anti-social and the pay far from brilliant. As ever, the vast majority of applicants came from abroad to join a team that includes Colombians, South Africans, Slovakians and Poles.

But it is becoming harder. The backlash against immigration leads to constant tweaking of the rules and ever-tighter restrictions, driving away people who fill such employment gaps. Nurses from the Philippines studying here, for example, can only work 10 hours a week instead of 20, so it is hardly worth training them to understand our daughter’s complex needs.

Few people, of course, will care about my domestic difficulties. But the number of people needing such long-term care is rising in our aging society, and it is becoming harder and harder to recruit in this field.

This is one tiny example of a broader problem that should give everyone concern: the way absurd, obsessive and outmoded views on immigration have poisoned the political discourse and now threaten Britain’s future well-being.

Voters see immigration as an issue of declining importance and most are so ill-informed they vastly overestimate the numbers here. Despite this, politicians from all sides prefer to abandon deeply held principles rather than tackle the myths and myopia that fuel such prejudice.

We have already seen this with Labour. Ed Miliband, having made much of his own back-story as a child of parents who fled to Britain, spent his party conference apologising for the party’s mistakes on immigration. “We got it wrong,” he said. This ignores the reality that migration lay behind much of Britain’s success during Labour’s time in office – and certainly helped explain London’s higher growth and productivity rates.

Yesterday it was the Coalition’s turn, with the Prime Minister promising to get a grip on immigration. As usual with David Cameron, the language was moderate. There was no toxic talk of British jobs for British workers, no hateful language of being “swamped” by foreigners.

But his policies are in direct conflict with everything else the Coalition espouses. To take one small example, here is a Government that claims to place the family at the heart of everything, telling spouses they must wait five years – not the current two – before joining their partner in Britain. That’s not what I call family-friendly.

And as ministers have said so often, badly designed, top-down targets are a poor way to govern since they distort priorities, neuter professionals and tend to backfire. This is why the Coalition -quite rightly – set out to sweep them away in schools and hospitals.

But the immigration cap imposes just such an arbitrary and bureaucratic target on hard-pressed businesses and universities, one that is impacting on Britain’s economic health.

It sends out the wrong message to the world’s best brains in both the corporate and academic world, people whose skills we sorely need. Multinationals hesitate about setting up new divisions here, while universities are crippled in a highly competitive global marketplace. Indeed, one Oxford University academic told me even conferences are moving abroad rather than forcing people from the developing world to negotiate our visa jungle.

On top of this, the cap is not working. It would, we were told, reduce annual net migration from the current 240,000 to an ill-defined “tens of thousands”. The latest figures reveal net migration rose by more than a fifth over the past year because while the inflow remained steady the numbers leaving fell.

Now there are more pledges to “get a grip” on borders, more tinkering with the cap and hurdles for businesses. At least one Downing Street adviser saw how ridiculous it would be to force all firms to count the number of their foreign workers when the Government is promising to cut red tape.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats are silent on an issue where they traditionally showed a modicum of courage.

The tragedy is that economic woes gave the Coalition a chance to inject realism into the immigration debate. In areas such as planning, energy and the environment, policy is now driven by the desperate search for growth. The adoption of saner immigration policies would make even more sense.

This might be counter-intuitive when unemployment is rising. But a series of recent studies have found immigrants do not affect native employment rates, and that they pay proportionately more in taxes and make less use of public services and benefits. We are not even in the 50 most densely populated countries in the world.

Most pertinently, given the scale of the crisis we face, migrants are more likely to be motors of economic growth. They are, for example, twice as likely to start a new business or file a patent for a new product.

We need them more than they need us – you only have to visit Silicon Valley to see this. In perhaps the most entrepreneurial patch of real estate in the world you will find migrants behind many of the firms changing our world such as Google, Intel, Yahoo!, Paypal and eBay. They are at the helm of more than half of start-ups in this hotbed of technology; even Steve Jobs had a Syrian-born father.

Can Britain really afford to reject this kind of dynamism given the depths of our problems? We need to end policies based on denial and start accepting the reality of immigration as a force to help us salvage our economy.

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