In the build up to the EU referendum, as questions about immigration took over the airwaves and newspapers, I asked the Labour MP Margaret Hodge what she had done to tackle anti-immigrant sentiment that had engulfed her constituency just a decade previously.
In 2006, Hodge represented what was, at that time, the most British National Party constituency in the country – with 12 BNP representatives on Barking and Dagenham council. When BNP leader Nick Griffin put himself forward to contest her seat, it seemed likely she might be ousted by the far-right party.
Hodge explained that at the time, an increasing number of constituents were calling to her office complaining about immigration. Typically, she said, these conversations would go along the lines of: “There are too many immigrants in my town. My son can’t afford to buy a house,” “My grandkids can’t get a place at their local school,” or “All the immigrants are clogging up the waiting room. It takes too long to see my GP.”
Her response was to do what any good constituency MP would do – tackle the symptoms head on. She would say: “I can help get your son on the social housing list”, do the same for the grandkids on the school list, and help the constituent register for a quicker GP.
When the next election rolled around in 2010, Hodge didn’t just keep her seat, she wiped the floor with Griffin – doubling her majority and triggering a domino effect that would see the far-right lose all 12 of the local authority seats it had gained four years previously.
So why have the concerns she faced in her constituency become so prominent across Britain today? How is it that – as the OECD’s latest International Migration Outlook shows – a country like Ireland, as culturally, politically and historically similar to Britain as they come, can have almost 50 per cent more immigrants as a proportion of its population and yet none of the toxicity of Britain’s immigration debate?
As recently as the turn of the millennium, both countries had the same proportion, showing that the rate of growth is not necessarily what matters. Indeed, the OECD data shows, yet again, that for both the proportion of foreign-born population, and the rate of growth in immigration, the UK is relatively average.
As Hodge’s experience shows, for most Britons, the concern is not with immigration in itself, but with successive governments’ failure to adequately prepare public services for the effects this may have. The difference is, therefore, how we have failed to manage immigration effectively. Manufacturers, retailers and service providers have all expanded seamlessly in recent years. But in Whitehall and Town Hall, government has failed to plan and prepare the public sector for population change.
Short-sightedness and false economies have long plagued policymaking. This is particularly true of immigration. A prime example is the £50m Migration Impact Fund to help communities adjust to demographic change. First introduced by New Labour in 2008, it was rashly scrapped by David Cameron’s government within five months of taking power – just when immigration was becoming the hot-button issue in our national politics.
Poor planning by successive governments can also, ironically, translate into higher immigration. Cuts to domestic training budgets, for example, mean we need more workers to come from abroad. If we cannot make working in public sector employment attractive enough to British people, then we have to import employees to fill the gap.
The best way to reduce British businesses’ need to recruit staff from overseas is to increase the supply of British workers willing and able to do the jobs those employers are creating. Yet, nearly half a million private-sector jobs were left unfilled last year because of a shortage of people available with the requisite skills. The government’s flagship policy to tackle the skills gap, the Apprenticeship Levy, has been set up so badly that the number of employer-led apprenticeship starts actually dropped by 61 per cent following its introduction last April.
The UK’s exit from the EU should become a catalyst for much better public policy planning. Instead, we are at risk of failing to heed the lessons of our own history.
Meanwhile, the government’s immigration agencies have faced years of retrenchment. Whatever immigration rules we have after Brexit, these agencies will need to be expanded significantly. So far, however, a lack of clear instruction from Westminster has left them in stasis while the clock continues ticking.
More stringent visa rules and a wider number of nationalities that are subject to them will automatically increase resource requirements. Yet, despite being just 14 short months away from leaving the European Union, the signs are that government has still not put in place measures to build the infrastructure or recruit the estimated 7,400 staff we will need to manage immigration and customs at our ports and borders.
Better monitoring of inflows and outflows is also needed, and will be crucial to ensuring government policy remains timely and responsive to future population changes.
If these steps aren’t taken soon the country will be ill-prepared for the day we leave and the all-too avoidable consequences could be acute. The government may have begun planning to leave the EU, but it has yet to start seriously planning for what comes after.
Business leaders – perhaps more than most – are aware of the contribution those from abroad make to our economy and society. Without sufficient forethought, we risk obscuring this in the shadow of our own unpreparedness.
A decade after that crucial election in Barking, Margaret Hodge’s lesson about the need for the public sector to better plan for, and respond to, the effects of immigration remains illuminating. It is one we all need to learn.
Seamus Nevin is head of policy research at the Institute of Directors.