A common thread ran through most of the big stories that caught the media’s attention last week.
The Government’s plan for three million new houses; the misery caused to thousands of families whose homes were built on flood plains because of a shortage of space; Labour’s new transport “strategy”, necessitated by overcrowded trains and the requirement for additional rolling stock and longer platforms; the issuing of 700,000 new National Insurance numbers to overseas nationals; Gordon Brown’s promise to deport 4,000 foreign prisoners; and his pledge to establish a new border agency to control arrivals to and departures from the country.
The common thread connecting all of these issues is immigration. Not the fact, but its scale.
Each of the announcements listed above was, in part, a recognition that the number of arrivals in recent years has been too great, yet no preparations were made to accommodate them. The issue now is how the country, and especially those parts of it wilting under the strain of a growing population, can continue to absorb immigrants at existing levels when it can hardly cope with the most recent wave.
Just look again at that cascade of announcements over the past seven days. Why are the trains fuller than ever? One reason is that there are far more women working than used to be the case, expanding the workforce substantially, in keeping with the growing economy. But the number of foreign workers using public transport has also grown noticeably in recent years, especially in London and other big cities.
Mr Brown last week made a big thing about a promise to deport 4,000 foreign prisoners this year. There are nearly 12,000 foreign nationals in Britain’s jails. Over the past five years, while the number of British prisoners has gone up by about 10 per cent, there has been an 80 per cent increase in foreign prisoners, taking up 4,000 more prison places than anticipated and exacerbating the overcrowding crisis.
This is a direct consequence of the rise in immigration, not because foreigners have a greater predilection to commit crimes but because, as with the indigenous population, a certain proportion of them do.
Or take the proposed three million new houses. The principal reason for the shortage of housing is the break up of families. But that accounts for only two thirds of the requirement. The other million are needed for immigrants.
A revealing government response to a question from James Clappison, Conservative MP for Hertsmere, last week showed how hopelessly wrong past assessments of the likely impact of net immigration on housing demand has been. In doing so, the answer demonstrated conclusively that the Government simply had no idea what it was doing.
It indicated that not long after Labour came to power, Government actuaries—using household projections from 1996—estimated that a quarter of the 150,000 additional households that would be formed each year between 2001 and 2021—ie, 38,000—would be attributable to net migration into England.
By March this year, the actuarial projection, based on 2004 figures, was that one third of the extra 223,000 households that would be formed annually by 2026—ie, 73,000—would be attributable to immigration.
In other words, the housing requirement caused by immigration to England is twice what was predicted when Labour took office just 10 years ago. This failure to acknowledge its level even now has badly affected local councils, which rely upon an accurate assessment of their population in order to qualify for Whitehall grants, and has obvious knock-on effects on other services such as education and healthcare.
Immigration is, then, a numbers issue after all. Even the BBC now agrees. Last week, after studiously ignoring the subject for years, or finding it somewhat distasteful, the Beeb screened a Panorama programme entitled “How We Lost Count”, which it advertised as though this were some sort of scoop.
These are facts that many of us have known for years, but it has been an uphill battle to get them seriously debated. The fact that they are now being discussed is largely due to the efforts of a small, independent research outfit called Migrationwatch, which came on to the scene exactly five years ago this week. It issued a report that was denounced as alarmist, scaremongering, even racist.
It was a prediction that Britain could expect to receive more than two million immigrants every 10 years for the foreseeable future unless curbs were introduced. It was absolutely spot on, but few thanked Sir Andrew Green, the retired diplomat who founded Migrationwatch, for pointing it out. More than that, efforts were made—including official ones—to traduce his motives and to trash his group’s research.
You may or may not agree with Sir Andrew’s view, which he articulated five years ago, that “the scale of inward migration is now so great as to be contrary to the best interests of every section of our community”. But you can no longer ignore that scale nor its consequences. The big question now is what do we do about it?
In a recent parliamentary debate, important speeches on this subject were made by Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP for mid-Sussex, and Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead. Mr Soames proposed moving to zero net immigration from outside the EU; Mr Field, if anything, was more radical in his prescription.
He also said: “The debate is of course about numbers, but it is also about what it means to create and maintain a community. If the Government do not change track very smartly on this issue, the sense of national identity might be lost, and then we are in totally new territory.”
This is no longer a discussion confined to a few voices in the wilderness, nor is it a subject from which the Conservatives should shy away because they fear it will be derided by Mr Brown as the “old agenda”. This is happening now and it is too important for the future cohesion of our nation to be tiptoed around any more.
In the meantime, a debt of gratitude is owed to Sir Andrew and his Migrationwatch team for having the guts to stick with what they knew to be right.