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It's time to ditch the immigration numbers game - and focus on fixing Britain

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'We should also be grateful, not resentful, if people from overseas want to make their home here' (Photo: Peter Cade/Getty)

During Prime Minister's Questions this week, Rishi Sunak accused Keir Starmer of wanting "an open door migration policy". Starmer hit back with a wounding retort that cheered his MPs: "If anyone wants to see what uncontrolled immigration looks likeā€¦ all they have to do is wake up tomorrow morning, listen to the headlines."

Lo and behold, the latest figure for UK net migration showed it had hit a record of 606,000 in 2022. Within no time, Labour's Yvette Cooper said the Tories "have no grip on immigration". Sunak was forced onto the defensive, denying migration was out of control, but insisting "the numbers are just too high, it's as simple as that".

Except it isn't as simple as that. Sunak, like Boris Johnson and Liz Truss before him, has actually been implementing policies that he knew would lead to higher net migration.

Once we had "taken back control" of the issue following Brexit, the Government liberalised the criteria for skilled work visas, scrapped Theresa May's ban on foreign students from working longer than four months after graduation and actually set a target to increase their number.

Back in July 2019, Johnson had the good sense to start his time as prime minister by ditching May's (and David Cameron's) much-mocked target to get net migration down to the "tens of thousands". Crucially, he said he didn't want to "get into some numbers game".

Perhaps worried he needed some kind of cover on the issue, Johnson was persuaded by advisers into making a late change to the 2019 Tory manifesto - to play a kind of numbers game after all. In a pledge that now looks doomed, it promised "overall numbers will come down".

Former May aide Nick Timothy claimed this week that when the manifesto was published the former PM called ministers "telling them not to repeat the promise because he disagreed with it". Classic Johnson, but there was method in his madness because the pledge was - like those before it - just too restrictive for a dynamic economy.

Ever the technocrat, Sunak has tried to refine the manifesto promise in his own image, stating recently that "I'm committed to bringing down the levels of net migration that I've inherited".

Given that number last autumn was around 600,000, it is unlikely to return to the 2019 level of 200,000. However, immigration may have already peaked: the one-off influx of Ukrainians will not be repeated this year. So Sunak may actually hit his target.

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But what's surprising is that the Prime Minister is refusing to be honest and admit that the Government's "points-based" immigration system is actually doing the job it was devised to do: flex according to the needs of the economy, based on skills and worker shortages.

The system is far from perfect (in fact industries like bus and coach drivers want more visas) but given ministers actually wanted more students, Ukrainians and Hong Kongers, the rise in net migration actually feels like a feature, not a bug.

Importantly, the numbers look like they will go down as well as up, which is the very nature of the system. What's depressing is that both main political parties now feel the need to say the numbers are "too high" or need to "come down". Yet as soon as they say that, the next question is "well what is the right number?" and their lack of an answer proves the pointlessness of the whole exercise.

Still, the number of work visas does tell us something about the state of the UK and what's working and what's not. The number of NHS (particularly nurses) and social care workers from overseas is driven by UK-born people shunning poor wages and conditions.

The single best solution on social care would be to add a premium above the minimum wage in the sector. It's no surprise that Brits prefer other minimum-wage jobs that carry less stress and responsibility. The restoration of a full bursary for student nurses would be a start too.

Similarly, it's the Government that should get the blame, not migrants, for the lack of affordable housing in the UK, for an understaffed NHS, for chronic waiting lists and a lack of skills and training.

The new scapegoats for higher migration figures are those Britons who have withdrawn from the workforce since the pandemic due to mental and physical health problems, but again the solution to both is to provide more support.

It's worth remembering that getting net migration down could be a bad thing, if it is powered by rising emigration - and it's a pretty damning indictment of the state of the NHS that so many young doctors and nurses trained here are leaving for better pay and conditions in Australia.

Which is itself a reminder that there is a global race going on to attract overseas workers. And it's a race that Britain should be embracing for the simple reason that demographics - as well as the prospect of climate change triggering mass migrant flows - give us little choice.

With an ageing population and falling birth rate, no matter how better-skilled our homegrown workforce becomes, we will need more migrants to maintain our economy, public services, and yes, our way of life. It would be refreshing to hear a politician say just that.

We can learn from other countries too. More than 900,000 immigrants became US citizens during 2022, the third highest level on record, which helped boost their economy. Canada and Australia are touting for high skilled migrants.

It's perhaps time to also say the unsayable and talk about the benefits of unskilled migration too. Immigrants are more likely to be self-employed and start new businesses than native born people and many arrive with few formal skills yet go on to great things.

Donald Trump's grandfather Friedrich Trump arrived in the US age 16, with no formal education, and started working as a barber before going on to build a real estate fortune. Some 43.8 per cent of the US's top 500 companies were started by immigrants or their children. The UK is desperate for higher growth, productivity and job creation, and migrants help on all three counts.

It's also time to stress the positive contribution migrants make to our society, not just our economy. Migrant children often help improve school results, rather than act as a drag on them. Germany, which took in a million refugees from Syria, has seen both its economy and its civil society benefit from the influx.

Integration has been the key in Germany, as it has been here. As writer Sunder Katwala has pointed out, there was one thing Enoch Powell got right in his infamously racist "rivers of blood" speech in the 1960s. He predicted there would be "five to seven million" foreigners in the UK by the year 2000 - in fact it hit 4.5 million in 2001 and 7.3 million in 2010.

What Powell got wrong of course was his prediction that there would be bloodshed as a result. Instead, most minority ethnic communities have thrived despite the fact that it's they, not the white population, who are more likely to suffer from racist violence and discrimination.

Public opinion seems to be ahead of our MPs too, with more people more relaxed about legal migration. It's just a shame that both Labour and the Tories are playing the numbers game instead of focusing on the bigger picture of a dynamic migration system.

We need to do more on wages, conditions and public services for UK-born citizens. But we should also be grateful, not resentful, if people from overseas want to make their home here.

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