Migrants threaten social fabric, says CBI chief
Government should be wary of 'open door' policy
Assess impact before next influx, warns Lambert
Larry Elliott , economics editor
Wednesday September 6, 2006
The head of Britain's leading employers' organisation yesterday called for a curb on immigration from Romania and Bulgaria, warning that a fresh wave of cheap labour from eastern Europe could put social cohesion at risk.
Richard Lambert, the director-general of the CBI, put himself at odds with some of Britain's leading companies when he said the government should be wary of an “open door” policy to new workers from the two eastern European countries poised to join the EU next year.
Answering questions at the end of his first keynote speech since taking over from Sir Digby Jones in July, Mr Lambert said: “The question is about the sheer numbers. This is by far the biggest wave of immigration in the history of these islands. It has implications for the social fabric, for housing and education, for the way we live in this country.”
Britain was only one of three EU countries that allowed free movement of labour when 10 countries, including eight from central and eastern Europe, joined the EU in 2004, but ministers have hinted that they will adopt a tougher approach with Romanians and Bulgarians seeking to work in Britain. Official figures show that hundreds of thousands of workers from eastern Europe have arrived in Britain since 2004.
Mr Lambert said globalisation had brought “significant economic benefit” to Britain but said there should now be a pause so the government could assess the impact of any new influx of workers. “I'm proud that the UK was the only large economy that allowed immigration from the EU 10,” he said. “The new Europeans are young, ambitious and energetic.”
He added that there would be a cost if every business looked to eastern Europe for cheap, skilled, labour. “We won't become sufficiently dynamised to raise the level of skills of our own citizens. We run the risk of having an unskilled workforce, and there are clear links between skills, unemployment, health and crime. I think it is a social question of some importance. This is why we [the CBI] have said we should have a pause for breath before the next wave of new comers.”
Mr Lambert's cautious approach contrasted with the call last week from the coalition Business for New Europe for the “open door” approach being extended to new EU members. Chief executives of firms in the group, including from Sainsbury's, Centrica and Merrill Lynch, said Britain had won an advantage over France and Germany by welcoming eastern European workers, with the economy then seeing faster growth and lower inflation.
Mr Lambert added that he opposed putting quotas on migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania, but said Britain should postpone the free movement of labour, a route favoured by other EU countries when the 10 countries joined in 2004. “Protectionist forces are gathering in continental Europe and in the US. Here in the UK we are seeing ugly indications of xenophobia and racism in local politics. As the third industrial revolution gathers momentum real political leadership will be necessary to help us through rapid periods of transition in the workplace at home, while keeping open the enormous opportunities for growth and development that lie ahead.”
In Paris, Jean-Philippe Cotis, chief economist of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, praised the UK for its relaxed approach to migrant labour, saying: “The UK is a special case compared to other countries in Europe. It has different immigration … the UK has seen a combination of large inflows of relatively highly skilled people. This could cause some problems but brings substantial benefits too.”
Immigration, asylum and refugees
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Home Office: Immigration and Nationality Directorate
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Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002
United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)
US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants