Immigration scares: we've been here before

Politicians have avoided an honest debate on immigration for years for fear of appearing racist. Now the numbers are too big to ignore. We round up the arguments for and against immigration control.

For years politicians have avoided an honest debate on immigration for fear of appearing racist, said Jenni Russell in The Guardian. Now the numbers are too big to ignore. On Monday, the Government revised the number of foreign nationals taking jobs in the UK since 1997 from 800,000 to 1.1 million. The next day the Home Office raised its estimate to 1.5 million and acknowledged that those workers had taken more than half the jobs created since 1997. Office of National Statistics data predict that Britain's population will exceed 70 million within 25 years.

David Cameron pointed out that immigration had accounted for roughly two-thirds of population growth in the past seven years, arguing that Britain's public services could not cope. He called for a policy to cut net immigration and promised that a Tory government would set up a Border Police Force to find and remove illegal immigrants. Public opinion is on his side polls suggest that 41% of the public is concerned about the issue, from just 3% a decade ago.

That Britain has benefited from migrants for centuries, whether highly paid City workers or "ruthlessly exploited" cockle-pickers, is not in doubt, said The Sunday Times. By some estimates, migrants contribute £2.5bn more in taxes than they take out in benefits and use of public services. They have kept wage growth low and brought in much-needed skills and a work ethic that often puts native Britons to shame.

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But there are downsides, too. Immigration has helped to "paper over the flaws in Britain's welfare state", allowing the country to prosper while some five million adults take welfare benefits and do little or no productive work. If it were not for migrants, the government would be forced to reform the system and coerce able-bodied people into employment.

Quite, said Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph. "It's time someone got serious." The present Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, has "hardly put her head above the parapet on this one", but between now and the next census in 2011 might "like to do a little housekeeping". No one has any idea how many people are in the UK: illegal immigrants should be deported and immigration controls at our ports rigorously enforced.

But EU membership means there is little that can be done to control our borders, said Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail. No wonder politicians "try and suppress public debate". True, said Jenni Russell. Unless the terms of the EU are completely renegotiated, immigrants are here to stay. The only solution is to address the root causes. Eastern Europeans come here for work: they offer more highly skilled labour, more cheaply, than native Britons. Often they work at below the minimum wage, or have their wages skimmed by gang masters. Reversing the trend requires tremendous political will to prosecute those engaged in illegal practices and to develop real skills in the British population so that companies actually want to hire them.

All this scaremongering induces a "weary sense of dj vu", said Philip Stevens in the FT. In 1971, when it was assumed that the postwar baby boom would continue indefinitely, there was similar alarm. The population grew far less than had been forecast. Today, much of the recent inflow is down to the one-off shock of EU enlargement. There is no evidence to suggest people will keep coming here at recent rates and plenty to suggest that more of those now-retiring baby-boomers may decide to spend their pensions in the sun.