Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss some of the issues around migration, poverty and social exclusion in the UK.
As you can imagine, this is a very timely debate for us here in Britain as we embarking on one of the most far-reaching welfare reforms witnessed in generations - arguably since the creation of the British welfare state in 1946.
Added to that, the UK has long been a nation of immigrants as a quick glance at any telephone directory in almost any part of the country will quickly confirm.
Across Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and here in England, there are thriving communities who can trace their history to all sorts of ethnic and religious origins - from the Vikings to the immigrants from Pakistan who worked in so many of the mills around Bradford.
Indian, Italian or Irish - over the long course of this island’s history, Britain has attracted people from every corner of the world as a destination for those aspiring to a better life, as well as a refuge for those fleeing oppression.
Whatever drew people here in the first place, over the centuries this country has drawn great strength from the wealth of skills and knowledge they have brought with them at every level of society - from the arts and sciences, to engineering and public life.
Yet in today’s increasingly globalised world, the scale, pace and scope of this great groundswell of movement across the globe is greater than ever - and this is something we simply cannot ignore.
In many cases, greater movement is a testament to the successes of global development and progress as trade and investment flow around the world.
But, of course, there are still many who feel compelled to move as a result of economic or political pressures.
That leaves us all with a complex set of duties and responsibilities to balance - both in the domestic and international arena.
What has not changed is our commitment to doing the right thing for those who most need our help.
Genuine refugees will not be refused entry and asylum.
That is an important point to make.
Equally, we have a responsibility as a Government to look after the interests of UK citizens.
In the broadest sense, this covers issues relating to national security, the economy and the promotion of an integrated society that everyone can take part in to the best of their ability_._
In practice, this is not an easy balance to keep.
My colleague, the Home Secretary Theresa May, made this same point recently.
She paid tribute to the cultural and economic gains this country has enjoyed from immigration. But she also spoke clearly of the dangers of uncontrolled immigration.
Without the right balance, any society can face tensions if people perceive - even wrongly - that they are competing for limited jobs, services or housing.
If those tensions reach breaking point, it can drive communities apart and fuel social breakdown.
So while I am proud of the tremendous record of this country in terms of integration, I am also cautious about how far we can go.
Between 1997 and 2009, net migration to Britain totalled more than 2.2 million people.
That is more than twice the population of Birmingham - one of our most populous cities.
This level of net immigration is simply unsustainable for a country of our size.
So we have had to look at sensible ways of controlling immigration levels.
Our focus now is on finding ways to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.
Yes - still protecting those who are fleeing the threat of persecution, torture or death.
And yes - remaining open to the brightest talents who contribute so much to our economy and society.
But - also being realistic about just how many economic migrants we can cope with.
This is particularly important at a time when the nation’s finances are under strain and unemployment remains high in the wake of the recession.
A recent study here in London found that 26% of the people found homeless and sleeping rough were from the accession states - Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria.
Clearly, the streets of London are not paved with gold - to borrow a phrase from an old English folk tale.
So life can be tough for anyone who wants to come to the UK and that can create knock-on issues for local people - sometimes in ways that are not always obvious.
For example, there is a particularly long night bus route that runs across London.
It takes 4 hours from start to finish and some homeless people use this service to keep warm and dry and have some sleep - and all for the price of a bus fare.
However, this can present real difficulties for regular users as the driver or the Emergency Services have to deal with those in distress or not content to sleep through alcohol or other issues.
Instances like these highlight some of the stresses and strains that migration can have on communities.
And while we have projects in place to help such migrants find work, reconnect with their families or get home - it must be far better to manage the impact of immigration more sensibly in the first place.
Universal Credit and the Work Programme
Another interesting challenge for us here in the UK is that immigration has for a long time disguised structural problems in our own society.
Before this recession, the UK enjoyed a long period of sustained economic growth.
Around 4 million jobs were created during this period - yet the country suffered persistently high structural unemployment, with some 4.5 million people on out of work benefits before this recession even started.
In a way, you could argue that immigration filled the economic gap that allowed us as a country to ignore deeper problems within our own society.
This partly explains why around 70% of the net rise in employment under the previous government was accounted for by workers from abroad.
Businesses brought in people while we ignored the opportunity to motivate our own citizens - many of whom remain stuck in a welfare dependency trap.
Now this is certainly not the fault of the migrants who came here to take advantage of those job opportunities.
But it is a tragedy for those that were effectively abandoned to long-term benefit dependency while immigration provided an economic sticking plaster to hide the festering wound beneath.
Today, we are embarking on a series of far-reaching welfare reforms to put this right:
- with a Universal Credit system to make sure that work pays
- with an ambitious new Work Programme to people make the journey back into work
- and with a three-year reassessment programme for 1.5 million people who have been stuck on incapacity benefits so we can identify and help those trapped in dependency.
These elements form one of the main planks of this Government’s policy objective as we seek to tackle welfare dependency, social exclusion and inter-generational poverty.
Participation in a shared society
In the meantime, my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government are taking forward work to enable individuals from all backgrounds to take part and feel they have a place in modern Britain.
We want to build a society where we celebrate what we all have in common, rather than focusing on what makes us different.
Where people are not held back by social barriers or discrimination and intolerance.
The Government is focusing on a bottom-up approach that promotes social responsibility and uses the energy and ideas of citizens, communities and the voluntary sector to build an integrated society in which everyone can participate.
This is one of the aims of the Prime Minister’s Big Society initiative:
- promoting regular contact between people from different backgrounds
- reducing prejudice and highlighting shared values
- and working to reduce social tensions between groups and help communities deal with social and economic change.
This is important, because as a global trading nation, the UK simply can’t afford for globalisation to be perceived as a threat.
Of course, we all have a role to play in making communities stronger - and that includes supporting neighbourhood networks, and tackling poverty and exclusion no matter whether someone is UK-born or from elsewhere.
That is why I am so happy to be here to support the aims of this conference - and to voice my support for the excellent work being done by so many of the organisations represented here today, including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Praxis, the Commission and others.
To paraphrase the Praxis vision statement, in an ideal world there would be no need for any barriers.
But until that day, we all have to work together to support sensible policies for migration that help alleviate poverty and social exclusion while providing the security and reassurance that reinforces social cohesion.
I hope that this conference marks the start of even greater cooperation - and I look forward to working with you all to achieve these goals.