THE BLOG

The Race to the Right on Immigration

25/03/2013 14:48 GMT | Updated 24/05/2013 10:12 BST

David Cameron wants to keep immigrants off the housing waiting lists for up to two years after they arrive and Labour is busy apologizing for their previous immigration policies - for not doing enough about it. Nick Clegg wants immigrants from 'high risk' countries to deposit some money to deter them from overstaying.

All this because UKIP came second in Eastleigh.

Of course immigration policies are a legitimate area of debate and you don't have to be a racist to be concerned about them. The problem is that this sort of heated public debate allows only the most simplistic ideas to get through and the resulting Government interventions are likely to be clumsy and probably unfair and bad for the Country.

I am certain that most voters are far cleverer than they are given credit for in public debate - the problem is that the panic will only allow for rhetoric and exaggeration - the actual detailed reality of it will be lost.

Immigration is a complex issue involving people from many different parts of the world coming to the UK for a variety of reasons - it's complicated and simple 'soundbite' solutions will do more harm than good.

Mr Cameron has already had to reassure Indian students who want to study in the UK that they are in fact welcome here. This, after he promised to clamp down on dodgy student applications leading to the number of Indians studying at UK universities to fall by a quarter.

The right wing press will of course fill their pages with stories about scruffy foreigners determined to come here to undermine the British way of life whilst ignoring the very clever people from the same countries who come here and work hard and contribute much to our economy.

This desperate race to address immigration can't be because net immigration to the UK is rising - because it's not. The Office for National Statistics reported that in the year ending June 2012 - 163,000 more people had arrived in the UK than left compared to 247,000 the previous 12 month period. In fairness these figures will certainly change in the future and may have much to do with economic factors but it indicates that this new political anguish over immigration is not about the current reality.

I have spoken to people on-the-doorstep who say they fear that foreigners are coming to the UK and taking British jobs - I would put money on it that most people who believe this to be true cannot give an example of it.

This is not to say this does not ever happen - but it is certainly not the problem some make it out to be. According to another ONS report the majority of newly created UK jobs in 2012 were taken by British born workers. Some hotels and food- chains say they cannot find UK staff who want to work for them and it's not because the wages are low. The situation is far more complicated than this debate suggests.

Where there are low paid foreign workers in UK jobs we consumers could solve the problem by offering to pay more for their services and allow the employers to pay their people more money. I am not sure we are going to do that though to be honest - we happily enjoy the fruits of cheap labour whilst condemning those that do the work.

UKIP don't have a single MP and yet they have caused a stampede amongst the main parties to have a go at foreigners.

If you want a few extra votes you can always choose from a menu of irrational fears on which to capitalize - which though they often have a kernel of truth - are usually exaggerated in people's minds.

The fear of crime is one- the fear of the hoody or the home invasion. Then there are the benefits scroungers and, of course, there is always the fear of foreigners to fall back on. The problem is that because these fears are not matched by the facts they can only be addressed in emotive rhetoric and clumsy headline grabbing 'top down' policies.

I think this increase in concern about immigration has as much to do with our economic problems as anything else but the recession was not caused by immigrants arriving in the UK - however I suspect they are getting the blame.