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Kate Ironside: OECD turns immigration issue on its head

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 06, 2012

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According to the respected OECD, the EU is losing the battle to attract migrants. Many might find this puzzling. Until very recently all the focus was on how the hell to deter migrants.

The UK, Italy and France in particular have all been vociferous about the need for effective immigration controls as the numbers seeking economic sanctuary in the EU grew.

But now it is, according to the OECD, all change.

Our problem today is that we can't attract enough migrants. Migration flows into the EU actually fell by 3 per cent in 2010, with the following year seeing only a slight increase.

Both high and low-skilled migrants are put off coming because of the lack of opportunities.

Even internal EU migration has slowed. Most Polish plumbers are opting to stay at home rather than seek their fortunes here and elsewhere in Western Europe.

In fact, according to American Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, Poland is doing far better than any other EU nation state. Perhaps English plumbers should be trying their luck in Warsaw for a change.

Given the toxicity of the immigration debate, one might have thought this ebb in newcomers would be welcome respite, but the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development fears the let-up in immigration pressure bodes ill for the future.

Given Europe's falling birth-rates, it argues that the EU is dependent on migrants for its economic prosperity.

OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria recently warned: "By 2015, immigration, at the current level, will not be sufficient to maintain the working age population in the EU."

This is important for two reasons. The first is that a declining workforce is not the best tool with which to return to economic growth. It's bad enough trying to break out of the economic doldrums as it is, without having a workforce that is dropping in both numbers and skills.

The second is that we need to maintain our working population because that in turn sustains the non-working population, be they schoolchildren, the unemployed or the retired.

In short, we cannot afford the migrants not to come.

Business leaders have got the message. The recruitment agency JAM this year increased its team headhunting professionals abroad. It reported that its client companies were struggling to find British staff who had both the necessary skills and the willingness to work and to relocate to areas of the UK deemed less attractive.

That's not a new problem. A study of recruitment produced for the South West Regional Development Agency several years ago reported that firms in Cornwall were recruiting migrant workers because of their inability to recruit locally or because of the lack of local skills.

So how are the politicians responding?

Recently Labour leader Ed Miliband did a mea culpa on immigration on behalf of the Labour Party, declaring that, when in government, Labour had got it wrong. He cited Tony Blair's failure to put a cap on Eastern Europeans when the EU enlarged.

In a speech to the IPPR think-tank, Mr Miliband said: "By focusing exclusively on immigration's impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – whose living standards were being squeezed. We became disconnected from the concerns of working people."

Presumably, from the OECD's perspective, Mr Miliband is badly behind the curve. But his challenge, and indeed Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg's challenge, is that immigration pressures do not play well in the ballot box and it would be a brave politician to buck the popular mood.

So if they are not to follow the OECD's advice and stop being so paranoid about immigration, they have two challenges.

The first is to raise the skills of the British-born workforce. We cut our own throats if our education system turns out would-be workers without the skills that British bosses need.

The second is to encourage British workers to take the jobs that are going and to stop being so precious about what they will and will not do. With speculation growing of a triple-dip recession, it is possible sheer desperation will drive the British workers in that direction anyway.

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