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Author Topic: Gordon Brown warns against 'scaremongering' over immigration

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Gordon Brown warns against 'scaremongering' over immigration

Gordon Brown said net inward migration was not out of control. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Gordon Brown tried today to raise the tone of the coming election debate over immigration, warning against scaremongering over the figures and calling for a united front against those who want to use it "to stoke community tensions".

In a speech in Spitalfields, east London, the PM insisted that net inward migration is not out of control and has been on a downward path for the past three years.

However, the impact of the speech was blunted last night when Brown was reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority for misusing immigration figures in a Downing Street podcast last Friday.

Brown promised to cut immigration further by pledging that Britain's need to import skilled migrants will be "substantially reduced" with the door closed to thousands of care workers from outside Europe by 2012 and to skilled chefs by 2014. He disclosed that moves to tighten the rules on overseas students and to crack down on "bogus" colleges were expected to lead to 40,000 fewer students coming to study in Britain in 2010 to 2011.

Brown also acknowledged that immigration generates legitimate strong feelings across communities with anxieties over schools, hospitals and housing.

"The question is, who has the best plan to control immigration, not who can appeal to our worst instincts of nationalism and xenophobia, but who can appeal to our best instincts of a fairer Britain for all the decent hardworking families across our country," he said.

He quoted statistics showing that net inward migration – the number of people who come to live and work in Britain minus the number who leave to live abroad – has fallen from 170,000 since 2007 with "provisional" figures from the international passenger survey showing the trend continued to June last year to 147,000. "This doesn't mean immigration isn't an issue at all. " he said. "But we should not allow people to scaremonger with unsubstantiated claims about rising net inward migration today."

However, Brown was reprimanded by Sir Michael Scholar, Whitehall's statistics watchdog, for misusing these statistics in the podcast, where he conflated two series of official statistics to demonstrate net inward migration had fallen from 237,000 in 2007 to 147,000. The first figure came from the Office for National Statistics's long-term migration series and was for the 12 months to December 2007. The second was drawn from provisional figures based on the international passenger survey for the 12 months to June 2009. The statistics watchdog said the two series were not comparable as the second figure included migration to and from Northern Ireland and excluded asylum seekers.

Scholar said Brown quoted them correctly in his speech today: "We hope that in the political debate over the coming weeks all parties will be careful in their use of statistics," Scholar told him.

In his immigration speech, Brown cited recent Institute of Fiscal Studies research showing that east European migrants in Britain make a positive net contirbution and pay 5% more than their share in tax and account for a third less than their share of the costs of public services.

He said the introduction of Labour's points-based immigration system had led to a fall in specialist skilled workers coming to Britain from 99,000 in 2007 to 63,000 in 2009.

Dispelling speculation that Labour might embrace the Conservative policy of placing an annual limit on immigration, Brown launched a strong attack on the Tory plans for a cap.

He called it a pre-determined quota which would prove arbitrary, unworkable in practice and bad for business. The Conservatives have given no more detail on their cap other than saying it would lead to "tens of thousands of migrants rather than hundreds of thousands".

Brown said weekend reports that it would be set at 40,000 a year would mean that once the movements of British and EU citizens, asylum seekers and family members had been accounted for, there would only be 15,000 places left for skilled workers and overseas students. He compared this with the 90,000 professional and skilled workers currently being brought to Britain to work by companies.

The Conservatives said Brown was guilty of ignoring Labour's failure on immigration: "We want to continue to attract the brightest and the best people to the UK – but with control over the overall numbers coming in," said the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling.

The Liberal Democrats argued that the government's shambolic management of immigration had undermined the historically liberal attitude towards migrants. A system of exit checks and making sure migrants live where they are most needed was required to restore public confidence, said Chris Huhne for the Liberal Democrats.