Immigration is good. Excessive levels of immigration and poorly regulated immigration policy are definitely not. Despite efforts in recent years, mainly driven under Theresa May’s stewardship at the Home Office, the current system continues to allow net migration at a quarter of a million a year, so much remains to be done. This article considers the arguments and makes proposals for an effective post-Brexit immigration system for the UK.
About two-thirds of British voters want to see immigration significantly reduced (YouGov, September 2017) and only 35% think that immigration has had a positive impact (Ipsos Mori, July 2016). These figures have remained fairly consistent for many years, although concerns increased significantly as a consequence of the Blair-Brown years which saw an unprecedented scale of immigration and during which time the discussion was distorted to such an extent that anybody who expressed disquiet and refused to subscribe to the government’s immigration agenda incurred opprobrium. Who can forget Gordon Brown’s description of Labour-supporting Gillian Duffy as, ‘that bigoted woman’ when she voiced concerns about immigration during the 2010 general election campaign? It was precisely this sort of approach to the issue that resulted in the subject being, by and large, excluded from the realm of rational debate.
Since 2010, the situation has been more mixed. Theresa May oversaw significant reductions in bogus students, curtailed the ability to transfer between visas, established quotas for non-EU work permits and implemented greater scrutiny of marriage as a route to entry. However, the UK population has still increased by over three million in the last eight years (primarily due to immigration), so clearly these policies did not solve the underlying problem that the UK is receiving more immigrants than it can realistically handle.
The primary problem with current immigration levels is that of scale. The year ending September 2017 saw net migration to the UK of 244,000 people. England, which receives 90% of all UK immigrants, is more densely populated than India. ONS projections have shown that if immigration continues at its current rate, the population will grow by another ten million by 2041 (greater than the combined population of Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield, Liverpool and Leeds – the UK’s seven largest cities after London) – 82% of this growth will be the result of immigration. Just to accommodate migrants at their current rate of entry into England would require construction of 110,000 new homes a year – one every five minutes. This would involve building over an area equivalent in size to Surrey within two decades, and yet the consequences of such growth extend far beyond the hugely detrimental impact that it would have on the natural environment.
Current population growth is at its fastest in nearly 100 years, and mass-immigration, as its primary driver, necessarily puts pressures on the provision of public services. Last year NHS waiting lists climbed to their highest level in over ten years. Furthermore, secondary school places are heavily over-subscribed, and the transport infrastructure is struggling to support ever-increasing numbers of passengers and vehicles. The housing crisis is also in part symptomatic of immigration-driven population growth. The government has reported that from 1991-2016 immigration contributed 21% towards the increase in house prices (MHCLG, April 2018) Although immigration is not wholly to blame, it is seldom acknowledged as a contributory factor when the price and availability of houses are being discussed.
Of course, this is only part of the picture. Current levels of immigration can have a damaging effect on the lowest paid and unemployed in the UK resident population due to the willingness of business to embrace cheap foreign labour. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee (April 2008) and a Bank of England report (December 2015) both found that immigration had a negative impact on the wages of the lowest paid workers, and the Resolution Foundation produced a report (August 2016) showing that blue collar British workers are £450 a year poorer as a result of high immigration. Furthermore, the Migration Advisory Committee has said that every 100 non-EU migrants in employment displace 23 UK-born workers. The Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD, 2014) found that access to entry-level jobs for our young people had been restricted by inflows of cheap EU labour. Although some economic benefits are accrued from high-skilled immigrant workers, lower-skilled immigration clearly has a negative earnings effect on the members of society least able to afford it.
Neither can the socio-cultural aspect of immigration be ignored. The UK justifiably prides itself on its tolerance and ability to welcome newcomers, but as the government-commissioned Casey Review (December 2016) has shown, social cohesion is threatened by the failure of certain immigrant groups to integrate fully into British society. The current scale of immigration simply makes integration much more difficult to achieve. Additionally, David Goodhart (The British Dream, 2014) has said that too many people arriving too quickly can undermine the social solidarity upon which the welfare state is constructed. Although these views provide a less empirical critique of immigration, they raise very serious issues that it would be highly irresponsible to dismiss.
Four principle points are made by the proponents of mass-immigration. None of them withstand close analysis. The first is that it produces an unqualified benefit for the British economy. If the economy is considered through the narrow prisms of GDP and economic growth, then this is necessarily true – more people equates to more national output. However, the well-being of a nation’s people is not reflected in economic size alone. By the more appropriate metric of GDP per capita, immigration has been shown to have a neutral or negligibly positive effect (Meager, February 2012; Migration Observatory, February 2016), and this is without considering the pressures on public services and societal problems already outlined.
In addition, it is often said that many businesses and parts of the public sector need migrants to operate. Such claims roundly ignore the fact that this dependence on foreign labour has arisen at a significant cost to the UK in terms of both productivity and opportunities for UK-born people. Productivity (output per worker) has barely risen since 2007 in large part because the huge and steady inflow of cheap labour that correlates with this period has negated the need for businesses either to provide training for UK workers or to mechanise their operations. The CIPD (April 2017) has found an increasing divergence between UK and French and German business spending on training since 2005 and a significant deterioration in UK vocational training overall since 2007. The public sector has been equally neglectful of recruiting and training the UK workforce. A paper by Civitas (November 2015) found that three-fifths of British applicants for nursing courses were rejected in 2015 and 2016 due to place limitations whilst the NHS was continuing to recruit large numbers of nurses from abroad to make up shortages.
The Yorkshire town of Harrogate offers an interesting case study of these findings. It has experienced a net outflow of migrants since 2012, and according to the Economist (February 3rd-9th, 2018) this has resulted in a 9% increase in salaries at the bottom end of the earnings scale, including higher wages to tempt teenagers into work, much slower rises in rental market prices than elsewhere in the region, and increased investment in innovation and technology by local businesses.
Thirdly, it is an oft-repeated mantra that the UK has always had immigration and is in fact ‘a nation of immigrants’ – thus, the situation we are experiencing today is historically unexceptional. This is a demonstrably inaccurate assertion. Prior to the second half of the 20th century, no single wave of immigration ever constituted more than 10% of the British population, and that was the Anglo-Saxon invaders who arrived over the course of centuries. Other significant immigrant groups were the Romans, 3%; Vikings, 4-8% (who also arrived over a very long period); Normans, 5%; Huguenots, 1%. This should be contrasted with recent decades. The foreign-born population of the UK in 1991 was less than four million (at almost 7% of the population, this was already extremely high by historical standards), yet today it stands at over nine million and constitutes 14% of the population. This figure is unparalleled in our history.
The fourth point frequently made by proponents of mass immigration is that it leads to greater diversity. Although obviously true, it is, to say the least, questionable that this is an unalloyed good. After all, the UK was at its peak of scientific, industrial, political, military and literary power in centuries when British society was largely homogeneous.
It is also worth noting that co-opting ‘diversity’ to justify mass-immigration is a relatively recent development, and this is not the only example of terminology being selectively deployed in order to imprint within the public consciousness the notion that all immigration is beneficial, irrespective of its scale and speed. It is hard to imagine any other area of political discussion that has experienced so much linguistic distortion or been so consistently repackaged for public consumption. Those opposed to mass-immigration are often cast as being uncaring, ignorant and racist bigots (evidence for these accusations rarely follows) while those who support it define themselves as progressive, caring and humanitarian (regardless of the fact that it is the poorest and most vulnerable in our own society who suffer most from the consequences of mass-immigration).
More fundamentally, immigration highlights structural issues within our democracy itself. The fact that the Westminster model significantly hinders the ability of smaller parties to translate votes into seats is not necessarily problematic; it certainly allows for more stable government and smooth transfers of power. However, it also means that an issue such as immigration, over which the major parties fail to reflect the extent of public concern, cannot easily find an outlet in the political system regardless of its salience in the public consciousness. Indeed, immigration remains one of the top three issues of major concern to British voters (YouGov, April-May 2018)
That said, Migration Watch UK firmly believes that it is both possible to have the immigration that we need and to reduce its current unsustainable scale. With that thought as our guide, below are a number of proposals that might form the basis of an effective immigration system.
1. Immigration policy should be determined objectively. It must consider the social, cultural and political effects of immigration (at local and national level), not just economic factors, and be based only on national interest and the welfare of UK citizens, with due attention to those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.
2. The government should maintain the target of reducing net immigration to less than 100,000. This is because it provides a benchmark by which to hold their efforts to account – maintaining their focus on limiting numbers and preventing complacency.
3. The government should be willing to offer special concessions to EU citizens, but these should be reciprocated by the EU and must fall far short of the current freedom of movement provisions. It is noteworthy that 80% of EU workers who came to the UK in the last ten years were low-skilled – this inflow cannot be allowed to continue. Additionally, immigration must not be seen as a bargaining chip with which to gain trade concessions during Brexit negotiations. Reciprocal arrangements could include:
- Visa-free access to the UK for EU tourists, family visitors, students and businesspeople.
- A Youth Mobility Visa for young people to come to the UK and work, limited to two years. The UK already has such a visa arrangement with eight countries, including Australia, Canada and South Korea.
- A temporary scheme by which businesses could pay a surcharge to bring semi-skilled EU workers, such as bricklayers, into the UK for a fixed period in order to fill skills gaps until they have adequately trained sufficient British workers in these roles.
- Genuine students should continue to be welcome into the UK. There should be no limit to their numbers. As long as they leave at the end of their studies they are not contributing to long-term population pressures.
- Students should not be removed from the net migration statistics. This would be completely incompatible with international norms as well as administratively burdensome. Indeed, the public are opposed to removing them (ComRes, April 2017). Furthermore, students should also be kept in the net migration target because any serious analysis would have to re-include them anyway.
- Students who wish to switch into work post-study should be counted towards skilled work visa quotas (see below) and should have to meet the same earnings thresholds.
- The work visa currently allows 20,700 non-EU skilled workers a year (plus dependents) into the UK. Post-Brexit, the quota should be kept in place, although the numbers should be open to review. Language requirements and earnings thresholds for obtaining this visa should be increased.
- Most skilled workers do not enter on the quota, but as Intra-Company Transfers. This route is currently being exploited far more extensively than was originally intended. In the year ending March 2017, over 50,000 ICT visas were issued. This route must be significantly tightened.
6. Illegal immigration:
- The recent Windrush debacle, which was a consequence of Home Office administrative failings rather than poor policy, should not be allowed to distract from the fact that illegal immigration must be urgently dealt with. A YouGov survey two weeks after the scandal broke (April 2017) showed that 71% of the public support the ‘hostile environment’ measures introduced in 2014.
- There are estimated to be at least 500,000 illegal immigrants in the UK (Civitas, June 2017) and possibly up to a million. The Border Force need to be much better equipped and resourced in order to prevent more arriving as well as processing those already here.
Brexit offers an opportunity for the Government to make a serious effort to tackle mass-immigration. Undoubtedly, they must consider business and public sector requirements in their approach, but this must be done in light of public concern about numbers.
As Edmund Burke himself said: “A statesman, never losing sight of principles, is to be guided by circumstances; and judging contrary to the exigencies of the moment he may ruin his country forever.”