David Cameron has been accused of showing “desperation in the face of Ukip” by giving a peerage to Sir Andrew Green who leads a group lobbying for lower immigration.
Labour’s leader in the House of Lords, Lady Royall of Blaisdon questioned why Green, founder of MigrationWatch UK, was not appointed at the time of the last list of new peers, raising the suggestion his position was hurried through in the face of Conservative worries about Ukip’s popularity.
Green’s many supporters argue his thinktank has been much more accurate than government predications about the scale of immigration to Britain and public discontent about the issue over the last decade. His thinktank has claimed to document and predict rising levels of migration to the UK and its consequences without a political agenda.
However, critics have accused Green’s MigrationWatch UK of failing to be impartial and statistically accurate on the issue of immigration since it was founded by the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria in 2001.
Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, has challenged the group’s claims on more than one occasion, including complaints to the Press Complaints Commission over two newspaper articles.
In 2012, he criticised MigrationWatch UK for highlighting a “remarkable coincidence between the rise in youth unemployment and the huge surge in immigration from eastern Europe over the last eight years”, arguing that most published studies suggest immigration has little or no impact on employment or unemployment. On Tuesday he tweeted MigrationWatch UK “get facts wrong and don’t correct - that’s on the record”.
Downing Street defended the appointment when questioned about MigrationWatch UK’s statistics, saying Cameron saw it as a “recognition of the contribution Sir Andrew has made to public life”.
Asked whether this is the precursor to a new official job for Green in the government, the prime minister’s deputy official spokesman would only say that the peerage was the role being awarded that day.
Migration Watch UK welcomed Cameron’s decision, saying it was an endorsement of the work the organisation has done.
The statement added: “In the early years there was widespread reluctance to discuss the issue at all, but MigrationWatch has worked steadily to improve public understanding of the impact of the very high levels of net migration of the past 15 years. Under Sir Andrew’s guiding hand MigrationWatch has undeniably become a leading voice in a very necessary debate.”
The prime minister is entitled to appoint 10 crossbenchers in parliament, and has so far appointed nine, including four on Tuesday. The three others appointed are Alison Wolf, the academic, who has done important work on apprenticeship training; Sir Robert Rogers, the recently retired clerk of the House of Commons and a thorn in the side of the speaker, John Bercow; and the former head of MI5, Sir Jonathan Evans.
No 10 said Sir Andrew was also being given a peerage for his diplomatic work. He spent half his career in the Middle East in six posts, including as ambassador to Syria between 1991 and 1994.
During the mid-1990s he spent two years trying, on the then prime minister’s instructions, to remove Islamic extremists who were claiming asylum from Britain. He was ultimately frustrated by the British courts.
Green founded MigrationWatch UK in 2001 with the help of an Oxford academic met through the letters page of The Times. The group’s aims were set out at the time in the Daily Mail by Green: warning that the government of the day was seriously under-estimating the scale and consequences of immigration. Green also cautioned that failure to discuss the potential pitfalls of high immigration for fear of being labelled racist could lead to an undesirable rise of the far right.
For some years, it was a significant thorn in the side of the Home Office, which accused it of giving an “overinflated picture of levels of migration”, while David Blunkett, the former home secretary, suggested it was a “tin pot” outfit with a rightwing agenda.
In the early years at least, the main concern of MigrationWatch UK appeared to be the level of immigration from outside the EU. Speaking in 2005 on the BBC, Green said his group had “no problem with immigration from Poland, which is valuable to all sides” but the group wanted “a reduction in numbers from elsewhere”.
The arguments of MigrationWatch UK also went further than concern about the number of immigrants coming to Britain. In a letter to the Sunday Times in 2005, Green raised the issue of integration, suggesting it might be harder for those from Asia and Africa to fit into British society.
“How can we integrate people at this pace, especially as 70% of the net inflow of foreign citizens are from the distant cultures of Asia and Africa?” he wrote at the time.
Some other controversial ideas expressed by the lobby group include Green’s calls for the UK to test immigrants for HIV – a proposal that got Ukip leader Nigel Farage into hot water earlier this month. In 2004, he lambasted the British government for not having the “courage to face down kneejerk accusations of racism by publicly acknowledging that African immigrants account for such a large proportion of British Aids cases”.
In spite of some controversies, MigrationWatch UK has garnered hundreds of headlines over the last decade with assertions that population growth has been out of control. The Daily Telegraph said: “Ten years ago, a tiny campaign group captured the headlines with a startling prediction that net immigration to the UK would grow by 2 million over the next decade.
“Since this was four times more than occurred in the previous decade, the forecast was rubbished by the Home Office. Moreover, the people behind the group, MigrationWatch UK, were denounced as closet racists for even raising the subject.
“Yet everything that MigrationWatch foresaw came true; indeed, as the figures published this week from the 2011 census show, they were overly cautious.”
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