Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Why do most parties still not get the public’s concern about immigration?

The Prime Minister has copped a lot of flak over the latest immigration statistics. Yet the sneering of his opponents conceals quite an important point: David Cameron not only gets it that people in this country are concerned about the issue, but he has also tried to do something about it. The common theme for all of those berating him for disappointing figures is that they either wouldn’t try to do anything more than talk about it or that they are destined also to fail.

I cannot believe that one of the world’s most advanced democracies cannot get to grips with an issue which resonates so strongly in many constituencies. Those least in favour of restricting immigration still recognise and acknowledge it as a very real public concern. So how have we let ourselves get into a defeatist outlook apparently surrendering any prospect of having a managed, controlled immigration policy?

The argument about immigration has very little to do with race. It might be that some irrelevant political wannabes will leap on the issue and seek to exploit it for nefarious advantage. But public sympathy for them in this country is barely negligible, and they can be discounted. I know that when my constituents raise the issue of immigration with me, it is overwhelmingly in the context of legitimate concerns and nothing whatsoever to do with racism.

And when concerns about immigration are expressed, it is the impact that it brings to bear on local services which is most salient in the public’s minds. Obviously, there is pressure on housing – more people require greater levels of accommodation, and, with the time-lag in construction as well as a general shortage of supply at present (despite the Government’s success in increasing the rate of house-building), combined with the tendency for immigration communities to concentrate in particular places, creates an acute pressure felt very strongly in those locations.

Then there’s healthcare. Immigrants are relatively less likely to register for primary care, and more likely to use accident and emergency departments in our hospitals. The Government are right to ‘rebalance’ the medical profession in favour of general practice, but it will take quite a bit of effort to shift the current mind-set which, although not unique amongst immigrants, is certainly a major contributory factor to the pressures on our hospitals.

And we cannot forget schools. In many places, the pressure on school admissions is very severe. The impact in specific locations of high levels of immigration can be very hard for schools to address – particularly when this is mixed with relatively poor English language skills.

Yes, most immigrants to this country are relatively young and hard-working. It’s not hard to see why this country is a beacon for many of those whose domestic economies have not had the benefit of steady economic management in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

But we do need an answer to the immigration question – and that will require a change in the rules. Concern about this issue within the European Union is not limited to our shores. And that provides the Prime Minister with the opportunity to make good his ambition. We need a change in the immigration rules. Even if we accept the right to work and the free movement of labour, that cannot be implied to mean uncontrolled migration of families. The European Court of Human Rights should uphold an individuals’ right to family life, but that should not necessitate the surrender of a nation’s control of its own borders.

I hope that David Cameron will continue to put more and more flesh on his red lines regarding the vital re-negotiation of our relationship with Europe in the coming few weeks. If he is to consolidate his already strong position in this debate, he must demonstrate that there is a clear plan to address a considerable public concern. I believe that the European Union re-negotiation provides such an opportunity, and frankly, without being able to have some modicum of control over intra-EU immigration, any attempt to address this concern is doomed to failure.

Perhaps he might like to flick through ‘Hard Bargains or Weak Compromises’, which contains a number of prescient and pithy solutions to some of the more challenging issues facing us today? Published this week, it would help him resolve not only the problem of immigration, but a wide-range of other matters as well. 

Monday, 2 March 2015

Hard Bargains or Weak Compromises?

David Cameron has pledged to renegotiate Britain’s deal with the EU.  He’s right to do so.
It’s not just that we have policies such as the CFP which are wrecking the national interest, and indeed were designed to take a national resource and share it out amongst others.  It’s not merely the odd rogue directive that adds hundreds of millions of Pounds in red tape costs.  It’s not even that foreign competitors see the opportunity to undermine UK companies, whether the City for example, or manufacturers of outboard motors, or auction houses.  It’s all these plus another fundamental dynamic.

The EU works for some member states because they are economically, socially, culturally and historically different.  If I were a Luxembourger, like Mr Juncker, or if I were a Belgian, like Mr Dehaene, I might have a different world vision. I might reflect on the last hundred years and think that giving up my own national independence is a fair price for binding a powerful Germany.

But I am not a Belgian, or a Luxembourger. And perhaps the Belgians and Luxemburguese might be happy that I am not! But I am from a country that is defined by its sovereign national identity and independence, and crucially that also economically does badly from EU membership. 

The reasons are relatively straightforward.  Our economy is far less dependent on our exports to the EU, compared with our exports elsewhere and the business we do internally to the UK.  That means the red tape our economy faces for the advantage of this business is disproportionately heavy.  It is all the heavier because we are, on average, considerably less regulatory by nature than other EU states.

Furthermore we still don’t know the exact costs, and that is one of the key failings that the Balance of Competences Review has left us with.  Nor do we yet have a clear idea of what the Conservative red lines will be when the promised renegotiations set out to address them.

This is why I have co-authored an important report that hits the media this week. Published by the excellent think tank Civitas, we look at those red lines a future Government, of any persuasion, should establish as fundamental to any renegotiation.  You can find the report online here:

Our renegotiating objectives will be complicated and deep-seated, because the nature of our treaty status with the EU needs to change sizeably. Tinkering will not be enough when you consider the rigidly of the institutions, the ever growing quest for closer union and the increasingly damaging burden placed on some countries by the variability of the value of the Euro. Change is not just desirable. It is a necessity if future generations are to compete and prosper.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Can this really be the best that the Church of England can offer in advance of the election?

The Church of England enjoys a footprint in literally every community in the country. Many good works are undertaken every single day through churchgoers and those favourably minded in their communities in the name of the Church – and as a communicant of the Anglican church, I know only too well the Church’s long and proud history of benevolence.

Arguably, the Church of England is one of the best-placed institutions to be a conduit for good ideas, and, through the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords, to speak up for that which is worthy across the entirety of our nation. Given that position, the so-called letter published yesterday represents a very major disappointment. Despite the opportunity to make a worthy, statesman-like intervention in the debate about the future of public policy, the Bishops have resorted to a lazy, clichéd, facile and politically-laden homily, revealing rather more about the deficiencies of their thinking rather than its strength.

As an established Church, the institution also has a mandate beyond its pews but that should be used carefully. The Church of England should not wish to meddle in party politics. Yes, they can have useful interventions to make, but that should be outside of the confines of narrow partisan abuse. And if we are to measure their general election call against what it useful for voters to consider in making up their minds, one might observe the paucity of solutions in the document?

But lest the Bishops think that merely posing questions will hide their preferences, the tone of the document reveals their instinct to trust dependence upon an all-powerful state which, from my own perspective as a Christian, was not a resonant feature of Jesus’ teachings.  I would have expected that the minimum standard for the Church of England’s Bishops’ contribution should be a consistency with the teachings of Christ?

True, Jesus’ parables have been open to fairly wide interpretation over the two-thousand years which have elapsed since they were taught.  For me, the essence of the Christian calling has very little to do with surrendering all responsibility to an overwhelming, omnipotent State apparatus. Even if it were possible to construct a truly benevolent State, its impact would be to stifle and suffocate the many good works done by millions of individuals who have answered Christ’s call to them as individuals. In circumstances where the State could provide all good that we might every need, would we want it so to do?

Words matter. I suspect that this letter has gone through a number of iterative compromises. If the conclusion reached even implies that by preferring collective rather than individual responsibility, then we cannot be held accountable for that which is wrong or unfair in our society then it could be harmful. I worry about an omnipresent State deciding what is good for us all and crowding out any room for individual preference. There are sham references to sustainability in the letter, but still a reckless predilection for burdening future unborn generations with colossal levels of debt.

And whilst the Bishops range quite freely over fifty-six pages contributing to current political debate, there is a remarkable paucity when it comes to moral questions with a bearing on policy. Notwithstanding the Anglican communion’s necessity to straddle some quite broad perspectives on moral teaching, if the Bishops’ preferred option is to let people make their own decisions, then what is the point of this document at all? And if it is merely to surrender responsibility to an all-powerful State, then they undermine the individual responsibility and choice which underpins Christ’s most essential message. The more decisions taken away from individuals and made by governments, the lesser the ownership and responsibility of those motivated to respond to Christ’s call.

With more than a hint at irony, this letter quotes Psalm 146: ‘put not your trust in princes’. Sadly, the princes of the Church of England have let down their cause very badly with this letter. Have they forgotten, or chosen to downgrade, the parable of the talents? We need fewer sound-bite driven, political correctness-obsessed milk-sop clergy re-heating the same tired, tepid clichés of soft trendy left-wing drivel. If any institution is best placed to provide quality analysis drawn from every corner of our country, it should be the Church of England. How depressing that this is the best that they can come up with: not so much a fresh vision as another worn-out rehash.

Centuries ago, clever clerics produced learned statements which, designated as Apologies, justified the teachings of Christ. Sadly, in the twenty-first century, the contribution of clerics in senior office constitutes a very different kind of apology.