Richard Harrington MP’s comments at the meeting emphasised the tension between what many voters wanted in terms of lower immigration and what the economy needed in terms of growth. He said that “the core vote of people who are angry about immigration” use it as “a scapegoat” for many of the worries they have and in this way it becomes a toxic issue to discuss. Harrington represents Watford, a constituency with a diverse economy made up of many family-owned businesses that “could not operate without immigrants”, who often took on the jobs that were shunned by the locals. He continued:
“The reality is that most businesses are populated by hard-working immigrants who are not here to take advantage of people but are the life-blood and oxygen of this country.”
His comments bring a different kind of thinking to the wider immigration debate across mainstream politics. It also projects a deeper understanding of the difficulties of trying to marry up the positives of migration and its negative perceptions in the media, something Harrington referred to as “two pressures”, considering that “people across the world realise that there is work if they want it.” He added that:
“People are very ill-informed and politicians are using migration policy as a way of not promising much but saying to people what they want to hear.”
Viscount Younger of Leckie followed Harrington’s robust exploration of the issues by outlining the obsession the media and government has with the inflow of migration but their lack of “focus” on the outflow and the skills they take with them is the real problem. He said that the UK had “a higher outflow of key skills than Ireland and Germany” and we need to know who is leaving and taking what skills with them and seek to find ways to retain them for the UK’s benefit “as well as training our people”. He added that the UK was in a “global marketplace and needs the skills to be able to compete with Brazil” and other nations.
Viscount Younger’s comments could be difficult to pursue in light of Home Secretary Theresa May’s thinking on curbing European Union migration. May wants to review the free movement of citizens across the EU as part of the Conservative Party’s pledge to hack back powers from the Union. However, given the fact that the UK’s biggest trading partner is the EU, what would this mean for the UK’s competitiveness abroad? Viscount Younger said this brings “another conundrum”:
“There are key export sectors in the UK – including finance, health sciences and engineering. It’s absolutely clear that we need the necessary skills, which is an essential factor in whether companies decide to come to the UK. If we encourage and recruit people into the UK, then it’s more likely that the countries they come from are going to do business with the UK.”