Net migration is down, trumpets the government, and yet concern about immigration is still rising and people are still unconvinced. Why? Partly because it’s not fallen as far as they promised, but also because they’re focused on the wrong target.
Make no mistake, migrants make a massive contribution, but low-skilled immigration was too high under the last Labour government. Although we did a lot to sort out the shockingly incompetent asylum system we inherited in 1997, we took too long to bring in the points-based system that welcomed skilled labour but cut unskilled migration from outside the EU. We were right to insist that all migrants learn English and that when they break the law they are deported, but we were wrong to go out on an EU limb by not putting any transitional controls in place.
I support tough controls on immigration, but the government has focused on the wrong end of the stick. Illegal immigration barely features in its calculations and it is now stopping fewer illegal migrants at the border and deporting fewer foreign criminals every year. There is far more we could be doing. There are still too many migrants unable to integrate because of their inability to speak English. The government has admitted that there was not a single prosecution for breaching the national minimum wage last year or the year before, despite the evidence that unscrupulous people bring workers from Eastern Europe, put them in overcrowded accommodation, pay them less than the minimum.
Under this government, the largest fall in immigration has come from the number of international students studying here for more than a year. But we should be attracting the brightest and best from other countries because Britain’s ability to compete depends on maintaining our position as a world leader in higher education. I reckon the public wants a fair, straightforward, watertight system that works.
I met Michael Attenborough on Wednesday. He is about to retire as artistic director of the Almeida Theatre to concentrate on freelance directing, and he told me of his father’s pride at having addressed Labour Party conference in the 1970s; his frustration when his 1960 film The Angry Silence was condemned by the NUM for what it presumed was its anti-union stance; and his pleasure when the union watched the film and presented him with an antique miner’s lamp in gratitude for his portrayal of the workers’ struggle.
Back in those days, newspapers provided overnight reviews of new films. When The Angry Silence premiered, Attenborough and the movie’s writer and producer, Bryan Forbes, celebrated the stupendous reviews by going into Soho with their wives. Too exhausted to go home, they thought they would treat themselves to a night at the Savoy. The receptionist politely but firmly told them: “We can certainly accommodate you two gents, but I’m afraid we can’t allow these ladies in off the streets.”
What struck me, there was a real pride in being working class. Nothing chippy or affected, just working class straight up and down.