I”˜ve written before about the difficulty of having a sensible discussion about immigration policy, but the vital importance of doing so - so I am very pleased that Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes are bringing a proposed policy to party conference next month about it (and have also written about it in Liberator).
For a long time discussion of immigration found it very difficult to escape from a context of racism. I think the fact that in recent years much immigration has come from other European countries, rather than other continents, has done a lot helpfully to disentangle the two.
The other thing that seems to have changed is the sheer numbers of people coming into the country. I don’t at all say that that is necessarily a bad thing - but it quite clearly is a significant change and an important issue, and any sensible discussion about our society and country clearly can’t ignore it.
The motion seems to me a good starting-point for a serious discussion, untainted by racism, of the sort of way that we want Britain to develop, economically and culturally, and what role immigration has in that.
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So it seems I spoke too soon in hoping that we could discuss issues related to immigration sensibly, without immoderate criticisms being thrown at anyone who raised the issue.
Margaret Hodge wrote in Sunday’s Observer that immigration can lead to tensions in some already deprived communities, and that politicians have a duty to listen to the concerns and fears expressed. “We need to question and debate whether our rules for deciding who can access social housing are fair and promote tolerance rather than inviting division.”, she wrote. “We prioritise the needs of an individual migrant family over the entitlement others feel they have”¦We should look at policies where the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by the indigenous family overrides the legitimate need demonstrated by the new migrants…We should also look at drawing up different rules based on, for instance, length of residence, citizenship or national insurance contributions which carry more weight in a transparent points system used to decide who is entitled to access social housing.” (emphasis added by me)
Well can we get two issues out of the way straightaway?
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For a long time it was impossible to have a serious conversation about immigration into Britain without being accused of racism. This wasn’t just over-sensitivity by the political correctness police - it was because many attempts to raise the issue did indeed have at least undertones based on race.
But discussion of the impact of immigration by councils who are responsible for working with those who need help when they arrive in this country seems, along with other factors, have to helped to change this - for example in today’s story about the difficulty of counting immigrants.
The Councils concerned have been quite clear that they are not opposed to immigration, and seem to have a genuine sense of the causes of immigration and the benefits it brings. They simply think the processes for counting them and subsequently assisting them, are inadequate.
This is an extremely welcome change - because what sort of immigration we want, and how we manage it, has become an extremely important issue and as a country we need, without racism, to be able to discuss it.
The issue is a real one for local authorities and they are right to raise it. However conceivably it is not a coincidence that the man fronting the current campaign, for example representing it on the Today programme this morning, is Sir Simon Milton, the leader of Westminster Council. Sir Simon is currently campaigning for the leadership of the Conservative group at the Local Government Association (LGA) and therefore to be Chairman of the LGA and I don’t suppose showing that he can front a campaign of this kind will have done his chances any harm…