Immigration: the huge hole in May’s manifesto

Published by The ipaper (22nd May, 2017)

Theresa May’s speech at her manifesto launch presented a bold vision for Britain. She talked of a more prosperous nation, seizing opportunities ahead to build a country our children are proud to call home. She vowed to support ‘ambition and entrepreneurialism’ across the economy. She said she wants to turn our society into a meritocracy and insisted she offered ‘a credible, deliverable programme for government around which the country can unite.’

Fine words. There was much to admire in her platform, from pledges on house-building through to promises to tackle excessive corporate pay, even if it was based upon crafty targeting of key electoral groups rather than coherent ideology. So what a shame her stance is undermined by one huge hole in her strategy – an issue that threatens future prosperity, weakens key sectors, hits entrepreneurs, hurts the poorest, upsets younger generations and undermines Westminster’s credibility.

That issue is immigration. This is such an obsession for the prime minister it drives her to hard Brexit, since she instantly decided last year’s referendum result was a vote to cut immigration. So one of her few areas of continuity with David Cameron is retaining his risible target of cutting annual net migration below 100,000, although even most of May’s own cabinet know this is not credible, deliverable nor desirable.

The only way to achieve this is by devastating the economy and public services. Perhaps disruption of Brexit will stem the flow of foreigners. But net migration is still at near record levels – and almost three times that silly target – despite May’s efforts in the home office to deter new arrivals. They come to work, boosting our nation even if the bile around Brexit makes many question if they want to stay in a place that does not welcome them.

Already pressure to trim numbers is leading to cruelty and stupidity. Ministers used a dodgy dossier to rebrand Eritrean refugees fleeing repression as economic migrants, leading to a rise in rejected applications followed by inevitable surge in successful appeals. The government spoke of ‘moral duty to help’ child refugees, then dragged its feet. Just last week a prize-winning Pakistani graduate developing a walking aid to transform lives of Parkinson’s disease sufferers was told to leave after her visa renewal was turned down on a technicality.

So much for that ‘brightest and best’ stuff spewing from mouths of ministers. Now look at May’s manifesto, riven with contradictions on immigration. It talks about world-class universities, yet keeping foreign students in the target shows clear intent to cut numbers and thus stem the crucial cash they deliver. These institutions are expected to ‘lead’ research and development, yet academics say chill winds from Brexit are deterring overseas partners while scientists expect to suffer badly from loss of Brussels funding and free movement.

European carers are heading home, something I see all too clearly as parent of a child with profound disabilities. So it is good to see the manifesto declare a Brexit ‘priority’ that the ‘140,000 staff from EU countries carry on making their vital contribution to our health and care system’. It also promises ‘significant numbers of visas’ for workers from strategic sectors such as technology. Almost half the digital firms in London’s thriving Tech City were started by people born overseas.

Ministers told farmers they will have access to tens of thousands of migrant workers who pick fruit and vegetables after Brexit. When hotels and restaurants warned that without a stream of migrants many would go bust, the government floated the idea of ‘barista visas’ to ensure flat whites keep flowing. So many special cases, from coffee makers to computer wizards, carers and carrot pickers. Whitehall must grow a fat new bureaucracy to sort out new rules, red tape and sectorial requirements.

Politicians waffle on about ‘high-skill migrants’ but perhaps Brexit will force Britain to see the wider role of incomers. The Office for Budget Responsibility warns slashing annual net migration to 185,000 by 2021 – still far short of the target – could cost £5.9bn due to lower tax take and higher proportion of non-working people. No doubt Westminster would carry on blaming migrants for failures in public services.

Business leaders ask who will build those new homes amid an exodus of east Europeans? Yet May implies she can reduce immigration while strengthening the economy and public services. Her manifesto also discloses alarming plans to reduce asylum claims by redefining refugee status and restraining them in global hot spots. So much for compassionate conservatism.

But it gets worse. One callous aspect of the current clampdown is how it breaks up poorer families. Five years ago May introduced minimum income rules for Britons bringing in spouses from abroad. This was set at £18,600, excluding four in ten workers, and has left possibly 15,000 children separated from one of their parents. The Supreme Court found it causes hardship for thousands of families ripped apart.

We need migration The manifesto reveals a prime minister who makes great play about standing up for ordinary people plans to raise this threshold – thereby separating more couples that fall in love across borders. But as poorer Britons are divided from their spouses and children, hundreds of Chinese and Russian millionaires have been allowed to buy the right to live in this country.

Such is the hypocrisy amid the immigration hysteria. Voters are being duped, which will only fuel fury in struggling areas. Britain needs migration. So what a shame May missed the chance to level with people instead of sticking to this discredited target. Sadly this blurs her vision and undermines all her other promises to the electorate.

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