Business groups have criticised growing political calls for tougher immigration curbs, with CBI chief John Cridland saying any such changes would have a “material impact” on UK competitiveness.
Mr Cridland’s interventions came after Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-immigration UK Independence party, said it did not matter if cutting migrant numbers resulted in lower economic growth, while Boris Johnson, the London mayor, pressed for a two-year ban on benefit claims by migrants from new EU member states.
The CBI director-general said he was concerned by the hardening of political attitudes towards migrants, especially in the light of the UK’s skills shortage.
“I think the business community would struggle to source the skills that they need without the benefits of the open European market and the visa system, which also allow them to bring in a small number of skilled immigrants from elsewhere in the world,” he told the Financial Times.
Mr Cridland added that immigration policy should not be an “either or” issue, pitting social impact against growth. “A sensible, managed migration policy champions the economic benefits but also recognises the social costs and implications of allowing more migrants in to Britain,” he said.
The immigration debate intensified on Tuesday after Mr Farage said he would advocate a reduction in migrant numbers even if it were detrimental to the growth agenda.
“If you said to me ‘Would you want to see over the next 10 years a further 5m people come into Britain and if that happened we’d all be slightly richer?’, I would say ‘Actually, do you know what? I’d rather we weren’t slightly richer and I’d rather we had communities that felt more united and I’d rather have a situation where young unemployed British people had a realistic chance of getting a job’,” Mr Farage told the BBC’s Today radio programme.
“So yes, I do think the social side of this matters more than pure market economics.”
Fresh battles also flared within the coalition, as Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, dismissed the Conservatives’ 100,000 migration target as “impractical” and said it would not be met in time for the next election.
Mr Cable has continuously railed against his coalition partners’ drive to control immigration and only last month compared Tory rhetoric on the issue with Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. In a BBC documentary to be aired on Tuesday night he undermined the Tories further by predicting that they would fail in their pledge to bring net migration down to the “tens of thousands” by 2015.
James Sproule, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, took the business secretary’s side, saying it was “alarming” that politicians had chosen to focus on the “crude number of migrants entering the UK”, rather than understanding the benefits and costs involved.
Mark Hilton, head of immigration policy at the business lobby London First, also said further attempts to control numbers could come at “a huge cost to the economy” and cited the damage already done to Britain’s £8bn education export industry.
Additional reporting by Jan Cienski in Warsaw