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4 November 2014

If we had enough housing and better wages, immigration wouldn’t be our top concern

We need to do something positive about the problems communities face, rather than dishonestly blaming immigrants for all our country’s challenges.

By Tim Farron

Parliament is usually a place for long speeches and very, very occasionally a revelation or two. But something said in the House of Lords actually shocked me the other day. The Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay announced “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean”. This in one quote shows how far the debate on immigration has moved and, in my opinion, has moved in the wrong direction.

Take a moment to think this through policy through. There is a world of difference between an economic migrant, a family fleeing a war, and a young girl who has been physically forced onto a boat to be sold into sex slavery. A boat does not distinguish between them. Just over a month ago, 500 people drowned off the coast of Malta. As the International Organization for Migration describes, “two survivors reported that smugglers deliberately rammed and sunk their ship when migrants refused to board a less seaworthy vessel…there were only 11 identified survivors; witness reported that as many as 100 children were on board.” Or, put eloquently by Tim Wigmore on the Staggers: “Those who flee from Libya or Syria do so in desperation. The existing rescue operations hardly make crossing the Mediterranean as a refugee risk-free. Over 3,000 people have died attempting to reach Europe from the Mediterranean so far this year.”

Looking at poll after poll shows that many communities are worried about the impact of immigration. I do understand their concerns. But it would be hugely disrespectful to the British public if we looked at those polls, and the problems they highlighted, and weren’t honest about the underlying drivers. If we had the housing stock we needed, better wages and a stronger economy, I sincerely doubt that immigration would be top of these polls repeatedly. We need to do something positive about the problems communities face, rather than dishonestly blaming immigrants for all our country’s challenges. 

But politicians run away to the hard, divisive rhetoric and avoid making policy that serves the country. I look around me in politics nowadays and I only see a handful of politicians in all parties willing to make the case for immigration, – Sarah Teather, Boris Johnson and erm… I’ve run out of people. 

Sarah makes the case not for her own personal interests – it’s because she knows the evidence-based analysis paints a more accurate picture and she’s making the case for her country’s interests.  Take a recent study by Prof Christian Dustmann and Dr Tommaso Frattini from UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration. Their analysis that shows that immigration is a net benefit to our country. Immigrants were less likely to claim benefits and live in social housing than people born in Britain and, rather than being a “drain”, their contribution had been “remarkably strong.” Immigrants to the UK since 2000 have made a “substantial” contribution to public finances, while immigrants who arrived after 1999 were 45 per cent less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives in the period 2000-2011.  

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After the tragedies of the second world war, we collectively had the courage to work together to create a world that did not ignore the atrocities committed in other countries. Working to pull up the drawbridge is fundamentally not British. Even adopting a purely utilitarian mind-set, it is bad for UK plc. Liz Truss admitted as much on the Sunday Politics recently when she was questioned by Andrew Neil on whether the UK needs migrants to perform low skilled jobs in agriculture industry. Our society is better, richer and more diverse, thanks to immigration.

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We need to be driven by the evidence, not the polls. It’s time to end duck and cover and make the case.

Tim Farron is the party president of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale