Immigration Brings Challenges – Let’s Rise to Them Together

EuropeA cap on immigration does not make sense.  That has always been the Lib Dem position and it’s good to see the Tories and UKIP following behind us.  They have both adopted our fairer tax policy, but I thought they would struggle to take on our liberal approach to movement of labour.  However, given the shifting populist sands on which they built their original immigration policies, it’s perhaps no surprise they have both started drifting.

I believe in free movement of labour because it makes us better off.  Without it businesses will be prevented from expanding and our ability to produce and export competitively will suffer.  On top of that our public services, particularly the NHS, would crumble at a time when we need it more than ever.

We may be willing (as a nation) to pay those sorts of costs in order to reduce net migration, but those proposing to curb immigration need to make those consequences clear.  The fact that the right wing parties have stepped back from caps shows that they are not willing to go into the election with an unworkable policy that will make us all worse off.

The fact that I support and believe in free movement of labour does not mean that I don’t recognise the challenges it brings.  Our public officials (local and national) have to recognise that more people means more and better infrastructure.  We need the foresight and courage to invest now in roads, railways, schools and hospitals to ensure that we can support a growing population.  That will require more active management of the public finances including borrowing to invest, both at a national and a local level.  We should get on with it.

We also have to work harder to integrate communities. Immigration is at its most positive and productive when it results in a mixing of cultures and ideas, rather than  communities living side-by-side but apart.  One of the best ways to do that is to get everybody involved in our election discussions to debate, challenge and reduce divisive negativity.

Which brings me to the third challenge – skills.  There is a lot of rhetoric about migrants taking ‘British jobs’.  The reality is that the demand for labour in the UK is not currently being met by domestic supply, which is why we have a record number of vacancies – 700,000.   Migrants, particularly from the EU, back themselves to have the skills to compete for and win jobs we are creating in the UK, and in a lot of cases they are proved right.  I, for one, have enormous respect for people who have the skills and confidence to travel to a new country that speaks a different language and have the talent to win a job, pay tax and thrive in that environment.  Provided the government is making sure there is a level playing field in terms of minimum wage and advertising, I say “good on ’em”.

Our many unemployed young (and not-so-young) people looking for work could fill those 700,000 vacancies if they had the right training, skills and attitude.  Some of them do.  For the rest we need to work closely – one-to-one in some cases – to equip them to compete successfully with anyone from home or abroad for the jobs being created.  Protecting them from the challenge of migrants is not a solution in the long-term.

That support will take time.  At the same time, to avoid our past mistakes, we need to change the national mindset so that as a society we are actively encouraging and supporting our young people into apprenticeships and trades.

I want to go further than that.  We need to equip young people in our country with foreign languages, or the right to free movement of labour will become meaningless to them.  British people can’t legitimately compete for jobs (outside of holiday camps and ski resorts) in the EU if they don’t speak the native language.   There would have to be a pretty desperate shortage of tradesmen if a Spanish person opted to employ a plumber who can’t speak Spanish?  Why would a German company want a British engineer who can’t participate in a meeting with clients and colleagues?

Even if we were producing the most talented tradesmen and women on earth, they will not be able to take advantage of free movement unless they can speak more than one language, or are willing to spend a long time earning peanuts while they learn it.  This may seem like an academic issue while unemployment is so high in the EU, but if the economic tables were to turn,  we need to be confident that our young people could be employable in the EU if and when there are jobs being created there.

While we remain linguistic dunces of Europe, I find that very difficult to imagine.  It is extreme hubris to think that just because everyone else in the world is learning English we will prosper.  The very fact that too many young people come out of school in the UK with only one language (English) means we are already one step behind most developed countries’ school-leavers in terms of skills.

I believe in free movement of labour but recognise that it presents challenges.  We need to rise to them if we are to equip the UK to be prosperous in the long term.  It also presents opportunities.  If we don’t equip our young people with the right skills, including language skills, British people will never fully realise the dividends that a liberal immigration policy can pay out.


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