06/02/2014 12:28 GMT | Updated 08/04/2014 06:59 BST

We Need a Sensible Debate About Immigration

Immigration - ever a tricky topic, both in London and in Brussels - last month occupied more headlines than ever before. Following the prime minister's principled intervention over the issue of access to the UK job market for EU migrants, the latest statistics from the ONS revealed the scale of the population challenge facing us.

The headline figure - that net migration has risen - is likely to give rise to understandable concerns about the scale of entry into the UK. However, that rise obscures the important fact that immigration has fallen - and that the highest levels of EU migration now come not from the East, but from countries such as Spain that have not weathered well in recession.

As the son of immigrants, I grew up living in a community in North London alongside people from numerous different backgrounds and cultures. We all valued living in Britain, and the opportunities for work and advancement that it presented. I know how much immigrants can contribute to British society and we should welcome those who work hard and make a contribution.

However, we have to take seriously, and address, public anxiety over the potential scale and effect of immigration from Eastern European countries. Politicians of all parties can no longer afford to sweep this issue under the carpet.

Immigration from outside the EU is down 40,000, which is testament to the government's determination to keep the numbers under control. But the elephant in the room is the principle of freedom of movement within the EU. Free movement is a cornerstone principle of the Single Market, and it can be good for business if handled correctly. We must also remember that over two million British people take advantage of their right to live and work elsewhere in the EU. However, there is undoubtedly concern about too much immigration from EU countries into the UK, and there are concerns in a number of other European countries, notably Germany, Italy and France, as well.

Rather than retreating from the debate, we need to be talking to our allies within the EU and the European Commission to find common ground to deliver reform that works. Done right, reform of the benefits eligibility of EU migrants to the UK would give a clear message both to visitors and to the British public: we welcome those who want to come to the UK, work hard, and play by the rules, but those who are coming for a free ride can think again. The right changes would go far to restoring public confidence in the principle of freedom of movement.

Practical steps are what is needed to make sure that immigration does not undermine our quality of life. Resorting to hysteria does not change anything so we need to keep the tone of this most important debate at a civilised level, and the scare tactics of some political voices should be shunned. People who come here to work hard and contribute to our society are a benefit, not a burden, and they are to be welcomed. A Britain without immigrants would be a poorer place. It is crucial that the debate on immigration into Britain remains balanced and proportionate. We must recognise the contribution that migrants have made - and continue to make - to entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth in our country.

Equally, people who deliberately target British welfare, or see this country as a soft touch, should not find an open door or a welcome mat outside the benefits office.

In short, the UK needs controlled immigration; neither an open gate nor a 'fortress Britain'. As an MEP, I understand that the Prime Minister doesn't have the luxury of being able to propose unworkable ideas in radio studios, as some may do. He has to govern the country - and manage our important relationships abroad - with real-world proposals which work. For example, the government's recent proposals to tackle benefit tourism are more sensible than some of the more hot-headed suggestions, which are overly protectionist, and on the wrong side of emerging shifts in British society and Europe.

If we want to 'own' the future, we must steer a path between shrill voices on either side of us. We should all get behind a Prime Minister who has listened to people's concerns and is looking for a sensible solution. That's why Conservative MEPs have formed a working group to explore the reforms needed, as well as to engage with key figures in Brussels about how to address people's growing concerns. Leading the initiative is a former immigration minister and an expert in migration issues - Timothy Kirkhope MEP.

Inaction over this important issue is not an acceptable option. But nor is preying on society's fears or feeding its basest prejudices. If some form of national hysteria on this issue is allowed to take hold, nobody will benefit, and Britain's reputation will be tarnished. An outward-facing Britain is a stronger, more competitive Britain. All we need is a migration policy that best reflects our national interests.