May 25th 2011
In August of 1997, a very few months after Blair`s government took office, I warned of a pending influx of immigrants from Eastern European countries.
That warning, which was based upon intelligence passed to me by informed officials, was dismissed at the time by junior Home Office Minister Mike O`Brien, as “the sort of thing that MPs like Roger Gale say during the `silly season`”. Mr O`Brien`s view reflected, clearly, the relaxation of the immigration regulations introduced by Jack Straw in his new capacity as Home Secretary.
When, a month later, Michael Howard and I motored from Kent to London to see Mr. O`Brien and to express our concerns in person, the Tory former Home Secretary`s considered, experienced, and legally qualified opinion was also dismissed out of hand with all of the “we`re in government now” arrogance of someone determined to learn the hard way. As we now know, that was a grave mistake.
Why raise this now?
Well, spool forward fourteen years and you find Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, on a pre-local government-election campaigning visit to East Kent, telling us that Prime Minister David Cameron is being “irresponsible” in a speech promising to cut the number of people entering the United Kingdom from overseas from “hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands”.
It would seem that the ex-Treasury `deficit deniers` of the last government are in denial, also, of their appalling inability to control immigration and to properly differentiate between those whose services and qualifications are needed, wanted and respected by this Country, those genuinely seeking asylum from oppressive regimes and those economic migrants attracted by the promise of life on a generous welfare system while working within the “black economy”.
Suddenly, in the wake of the effects of the Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring upon emigration from North Africa, the Southern European member states of the Schengen “open frontiers” treaty are having second thoughts. The wisdom of allowing all-comers to move freely between countries without border controls is now less attractive as those fleeing, via Tunisia, from Libya are landing upon the shores of France, Italy and their associated islands.
Britain, rightly in the light of our geographic location, island status and our porous but at least legitimate, border controls within the European Union, declined to join Schengen. Derided as anti-European, the British government of that day has now been proved correct in its policy but that, sadly, will not be sufficient to protect the United Kingdom from a fresh influx of illegal immigrants as the tide moves north towards our benefit culture.
I forbore to raise this during the local government campaign because I did not want this issue of serious national importance to be clouded by accusations of populism or electioneering. Ms Cooper was, however, profoundly wrong in her statement and Cameron was right to indicate, clearly, that the cross-channel gravy terrain has to be halted.
We need migrants, certainly. Many of our public services – Transport and Health in particular – would grind to a halt without the skills and qualifications and endeavour of those who come to our shores from overseas. We must welcome overseas university students, also, and we must recognise that those who apply for visas to study English before moving on to Further or Higher education need to be granted the necessary permits. These are the seed corn, our foreign business partners and tourists, of tomorrow. In East Kent agriculture has, traditionally, engaged migrant temporary labour and will continue to do so. And we have, over centuries, proudly and honourably offered safe haven to those fleeing for their lives or in fear of persecution from totalitarian regimes and dictatorships.
What we cannot do is absorb, any longer, those leaving other countries – whether within or without the European Union – who seek to exploit our welfare and housing provisions while contributing little or nothing in terms of tax or skill or labour. To try to do so will push a generally generous and tolerant population beyond the boiling point and, perversely, will damage the interests of those with legitimate reasons for coming to our Country.
This is not “xenophobia” or “racism”. It is a recognition that, as a small island that is itself trying to address a grim economic legacy, we have to place and enforce limits upon those who wish to enjoy and not to abuse our hospitality. That is the point that Ms Cooper has sought to avoid, that is the point that David Cameron was making in his speech and that is the policy that we now have to resolutely impose and enforce.