East meets Westminster: Current debate highlights poor immigration policies

David Cameron delivers his speech on immigration at UCS, Ipswich

David Cameron delivers his speech on immigration at UCS, Ipswich - Credit: Archant

THERE is nothing more powerful than fear.

It makes people do strange things – like do as politicians tell them and accept rules they never would have previously.

Take, for example, how the world’s air travellers were happy to stand in huge queues to get every bag searched, scanned and searched again in the days, weeks and years after September 11. If those techniques had suddenly come in to being on September 10 there would have an almighty brouhaha in departure lounges across the globe.

Politicians know how powerful fear is. And they know that just as it can work for them it can also work against them.

Much of the talk on the street about immigration is ill-informed rumour. Ridding this country of everyone who has arrived in the last decade would do it huge harm rather than turn it in to the green and pleasant land which, if truth be told, never existed anyway.

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But in tough financial times people’s default setting is blame. The toxic rumour of “they take all our jobs” or “the crime has gone up since they arrived” fuel the myth that outsiders should be avoided and demonised. And sadly people believe it.

And yet without the constant influx of people from beyond this sceptred isle’s rugged coastline we would never have been the global power house we once were or the relatively stable and (believe it or not) wealthy country we are now.

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But blame and fear remain. And where there is fear there are chances to win – and lose – votes.

So earlier this week Prime Minister David Cameron chose Suffolk to announce a supposed crackdown on immigrants who were taking advantage of us kindly Brits, clogging up the NHS and living the high-life on our welfare state.

Of course the fact that the new rules - which would surely make sure those pesky, robbing, foreign sorts think twice before seeking their fortune in these parts – have been largely in place and at the disposal of councils for sometime means little in this political power game.

Mr Cameron needs to be seen to be doing something. He needs to be seen to be tough. Because breathing down his neck is UKIP and the party’s breakthrough poll in Eastleigh is obviously weighing heavy on the PM’s mind.

When, just hours after Mr Cameron’s address, Nigel Farage arrived in Brandon to warn of immigrant “ghettos” spreading across East Anglia and claim Romanians were responsible for almost all cash-point crime in London the fear agenda was ramped up beyond the ridiculous.

Truth be told, Eastern European immigrants are far less likely per-head to claim benefits than a chap born in Ipswich. But that fact will not scare anyone to the ballot box.

Mr Cameron wants the NHS to claim back more from so-called health tourists. The power is already there to do this which begs the question who are the real villains of this story? Is it the people who come here in a bid to use our wonderful health service or the lazy bosses all-too willing to write-off taxpayers’ money?

Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant labelled the speech “windy rhetoric”. He has certainly got a point if you strip back the layers.

The problem seems to be that the vast majority of people are not well-informed enough to form an educated and balanced decision. So, like desperate cops who arrest the village idiot for the unsolved murder, a collective finger points at the outsiders.

But whether right or wrong concern about immigration exists and therefore politicians need to address it. A grown-up, informed discussion about how the UK manages its borders is long over due. People should not be afraid to openly discuss it without someone screaming “racist” at them. Equally racists who hide behind it should be unmasked.

And the Tory auto-answer of “blame 13 years of Labour rule” does not float. In fact it was a Thatcherite policy to expand the EU to south and eastern Europe which paved the way for the free movement of labour from that part of the world.

All the parties have made immigration errors that have got us to the point of a bidding war on who can be the toughest: Ed Miliband wants to force all newcomers to speak English (from a nation notorious for its apathy towards attempting even the easiest of foreign lingo that leaves us open to ridicule), Nick Clegg wants us to fine firms for taking on people without the proper visas (surely this law exists already?) and now Mr Cameron is insisting all the rules currently in existence are used (political genius).

What is apparent from this latest round of fear the foreigner is that none of the main parties have a decent policy on immigration. So the speeches are just that – words meant to reassure in some cases and frighten the life out of people in the others.

This column would question the claims that there are “ghettos” springing up around East Anglia – that is Mr Farage scaremongering. But communities can not be expected to cope with a mass exodus arriving at their door unannounced. Amid the bluster, fluster and trickery one thing is for certain, for too long the subject has been taboo – it appears now it no longer is. But it must not be allowed to swing out of control and become open season on anyone ambitious enough to want to forge a better future for themselves and their family. The UK economy is on its knees, now is not the time to turn our backs on talent from abroad, be they brilliant plumbers or brain surgeons.

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