The Sunday Times

November 21st, 2010

The gaping immigration doors our MPs are too timid to close

The true legacy of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and new Labour is different from what they imagined or intended. They bequeathed a population explosion due to uncontrolled immigration during their time in office that will almost overwhelm this country unless the coalition government is bold enough to try to control it now.

So far there is little sign of the necessary courage. Coalition ministers’ talk last week of limiting the number of skilled migrants from non-European Union countries is like whistling in the wind. Skilled immigrants are not the problem, either numerically speaking or in themselves, though many actually do unskilled work when they get here. The skilled account for only 20% of total non-EU immigrants. The government’s proposal to cap their numbers, desirable or not, will barely touch the scale of the true problem — a permanent population swelling so quickly by other immigration pathways that it is already putting unexpected burdens on maternity services, primary schools, housing, infrastructure and the NHS, all of which face cuts as well.

It emerged last week that this population growth will also, if unchecked, turn white Britons in this country into a minority in our children’s lifetimes, in little more than 50 years. That, at least, is the prediction of David Coleman, professor of demography at Oxford, which he made in Prospect magazine and in a learned article in the Population and Development Review.

These predictions are based on reputable statistics. In 1998, just as Labour came to power, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) predicted that the population would rise to 65m in 2051 and then slowly decline. Only 10 years later, ONS figures published in 2008 projected that the UK population would rise by 12m more than that, to 77m, by 2051, and then to 85m by 2083, mostly as a result of immigration. If migration were taken out of the equation, according to Coleman, numbers would be very different — the population would settle at about 62m in 2061. And assuming the ONS recent net annual immigration levels of 180,000, white Britons would become a minority after about 2066.

One might say it doesn’t matter whether or not white Britons become a minority. What matters is the culture of a country, not the colour of its citizens. Besides, by the end of the century, so many people will have made mixed marriages and mixed-race babies that the category of white Scottish or white English will have lost any real meaning. Actually, I think there are many people who feel it does matter, even if they can’t quite explain why, and are furious that such great change has been imposed on them without consultation, and perhaps without forethought. Others point to the divisions of multiculturalism and evidence about higher levels of happiness in homogeneous societies.

Regardless of such inflammatory questions, there can be little doubt that numbers do matter. The question is what the government should do, beyond dithering about caps on skilled workers. Frank Field gave some considered answers to the problem in the House of Commons last Thursday, all of which the government should adopt if it dares. But there was something depressing in the sight of this courageous man, famous for his independence of mind, explaining patiently how much the public has longed for open debate on immigration, how their MPs have for years appeared deaf to the question, how there has not been an immigration debate in the chamber of the House of Commons within living memory and how crucial it is to debate it — to a dreary scattering of no more than 20 MPs. Twenty! Why weren’t there hundreds of MPs? Were they frit? Listening to Field, the Migration Advisory Committee and others, it seems to me there are some perfectly obvious steps to take with non-EU immigration. If the coalition is to meet its promise to reduce net migration from 196,000 to 50,000 a year by 2014, it must first of all stop giving a virtually automatic right to citizenship to people who come here to work. There’s no need to take permanent responsibility for them and their families, who also gain the right to settle here.

Then government should strictly control the study route. The system is being notoriously abused, particularly in bogus English language schools, from which students just disappear into the undergrowth. There were 362,000 students last year, and this year to June the number is up by 26%. Foreign graduates should no longer be granted two years here after graduation to look for a job — there are fully 600 institutions that award degrees — while we have 9%-10% unemployment among recent native graduates.

The marriage route ought to be strictly limited, too. I would say the new insistence on speaking good English (from later this month) is not enough to discourage arranged marriages from the Indian subcontinent. Such marriages could equally well be arranged by British families between suitable young people already in this country. Government ought to be very bold — which it won’t — and bring back the primary purpose rules, dropped by Labour, under which men and women were not allowed to come into this country primarily for the purpose of contracting an arranged marriage or getting British nationality.

Another route into this country that ought to be limited is the families pathway. As well as children and spouses, the parents, grandparents and other dependent relatives of a British citizen or person settled here can apply for the right to settle here permanently — and are likely to get it, especially if there are so-called compassionate circumstances.

I suspect that not many people realise that one successful immigrant — one new bride or groom — can bring with him or her such a large number of dependants, including the elderly, who will immediately have the right to use the overladen NHS and to certain other expensive benefits. Who would not, in a perfect world, like to open their arms to the world’s poor and unlucky, and welcome them? But on this imperfect island, with its hugely expensive welfare system, it is simply not possible, and it is hard to imagine who could have dreamt up such an unrealistically generous scheme.

If our politicians do not dare to challenge Labour’s population legacy, and act boldly, then in the time to come they will seem as culpable as Brown and Blair.