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By Philippe Legrain 1 COMMENT

Labour MP Frank Field’s new proposal for "balanced migration" is many things, but it certainly isn’t balanced. A "one-in/one-out" immigration policy is unfair, unnecessary and unworkable – and would deal yet another blow to Britain’s faltering economy.

Field frets that Britain’s "open door" policy will lead to a large increase in the settled UK population, which he believes is not unsustainable. He proposes instead what amounts to a temporary-worker scheme, policed by employers. Foreigners could work here for up to four years, but would then be sent packing. Businesses that failed to produce evidence that their foreign workers had left the country would be denied future work visas. There would be a strict quota – perhaps 20,000, including dependants – on the number of non-EU workers able to gain permanent residency, selected on the basis of their skills as reflected in their salary.

Field’s proposal, cobbled together with Tory MP Nicholas Soames and the swivel-eyed xenophobes at MigrationWatch, is utterly misconceived. For a start, Britain does not have an "open-door" immigration policy: while people from within the EU can come and work here freely, those from outside the EU, which the Field-Soames proposal would target, cannot. The door is already slammed shut for all but the most highly skilled non-Europeans.

Second, as I have written previously, it is a fallacy that Britain’s population is destined to rise inexorably. The recent increase in immigration is largely temporary, and is already reversing itself: as the pound plummets and the economy teeters on the brink of recession, Britain is far less attractive to foreign workers. But, in any case, since when are other people such a bad thing? If having more people around is so terrible, why isn’t Frank Field suggesting that densely populated cities such as London, Birmingham and Glasgow prevent people from the rest of the country from settling there?

Even if one accepts that stabilising the population is desirable, Field’s proposal would not necessarily do so. Preventing most temporary non-EU workers from settling permanently would not limit entry from the EU, or keep out asylum-seekers, clandestine migrants, visa overstayers, and those entering on family reunification visas; nor, indeed, would it prevent Britons from having more babies and living longer. Indeed, if large numbers of Britons stopped emigrating, stabilising the population would require expelling existing migrants.

While the suggestion that employers should be able to hire the foreign employees they need has some merit, forcing most of those still here after four years to leave does not. After all, if their employers would rather they remained, these migrants are clearly contributing to the economy and society as a whole. Throwing them out would deprive Britain not only of the skills with which they arrived, but also of those they have acquired while living and working here. As an Arsenal fan, I don’t want Kolo Touré chucked out, and I’m sure Portsmouth fans would be loath to see Kanu go, too.

What’s more, making it much harder for skilled workers to stay on is Britain is hardly conducive to attracting them in the first place. Talented people increasingly have a choice about where to work; and with Australia, Canada and other countries wooing them assiduously, making them feel unwelcome here is tantamount to shooting our hobbling economy in the foot.

Common sense also suggests, and international experience in the US and elsewhere confirms, that businesses are hardly equipped to enforce immigration policy. At the same time, if workers would only allowed to stay in the country on their employers’ say so, they would be far more vulnerable to exploitation.

But perhaps the worst thing about the proposal is that the select few who would be allowed to settle in Britain would be the rich and the highly educated. Most likely, they would be American investment bankers and Russian billionaires rather than Asian acupuncturists or African nurses. That is hardly fair or progressive. Frank Field should think again.

Posted 11 Sep 2008 in Published articles
  1. The Pragmatist says:

    Why do you tend to largely ignore any issues relating to social cohesion and why do you make so little differentiation between the specific impact of different immigrant groups. The impact of mass immigration from Poland is obviously different to that of mass immigration from sub-Saharan Africa, or the Middle East.
    Whilst Poles can assimilate with relative ease into a liberal secular nation like ours, that is not so obviously the case for people from the developing world were cultural norms are totally different to ours.
    In the hypothetical situation that the Muslim population of the UK living in urban areas exceeded 30%, 40% or 50% one day, would you not think that would dangerously alter the UK”s ability to function as a liberal secular democracy?

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