Immigration: time for a calm, rational debate

8 Dec 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 8 Dec 2022

Pic: Unsplash

One of the most toxic debates of recent times is that around immigration. It was a central issue in the Brexit referendum. And it still rages today. It is time for a calmer, informed, honest discussion governed by facts.

In the meantime, the end of free movement following Brexit means that the net migration of EU nationals is now negative, at minus 51,000.

And just 151,000 non-EU migrants arrived in the UK for work in the year to June. This, coupled with the exodus of EU citizens from the UK, is one of the causes of the UK’s record number of job vacancies, particularly in health and social care and the construction industry.

Yet the hoary old myth that immigrants are coming over here and taking our jobs persists, despite the complete absence of evidence to support it.

The press has recently reported that net migration to the UK overall reached a record high at 504,000 for the last 12 months but more than half that number, 277,000 were students. Their presence benefits the economy because most universities make a loss on local students and any overseas ones that are able to stay contribute to the economy through the skills they possess and the taxes they pay.

The large number of foreign students in the UK is not a bad thing at all: it benefits the economy and in itself is a tribute to the world-class high education provided.

The second largest category of immigrants arrived on humanitarian or family visas. They included 89,000 from Ukraine, 76,000 from Hong Kong and 21,000 from Afghanistan.

They too have the potential to contribute to the economy and very many are doing so already.

There are no firm figures on the undocumented number arriving in the UK on small boats, but this is estimated to be around 35,000 over the same period.

This reflects a sharp rise in people arriving in the UK by this route. In 2018 there were just 299, and the figure rose to 28,000 by 2019.

The English Channel is a very dangerous, potentially deadly route, especially in flimsy vessels. It is very congested with commercial vessels and there are strong tidal currents. To date 57 are known to have drowned.

The vast majority of arrivals go on to claim asylum. It is impossible to state how many of these applications would succeed because as of March this year there were 7,500 waiting at least 12 months with no decision. Estimates are that around 70% would be successful. Applying that to the latest figures means that around 10,500 can expect to be deported.

The rise in Channel crossings mirrors the global increase in displaced people. Latest published figures from before the war in Ukraine, show that to be around 90 million and it also reflects tighter security on other clandestine routes of entry.

In any event many observers have concluded that the most sensible way of reducing unauthorised boat crossings would be to improve co-operation with France and speed up the asylum process rather than sending those detained to Rwanda.

But the debate about immigration should be about much more than boat crossings, legal or otherwise.

In the UK we have an ageing population which means that over time the proportion of those who are retired will rise.

As this process continues we will face two related dilemmas, the first is generating the revenue to pay their pensions and the public services we all rely on. The second is how we improve, or even maintain GDP without more workers.

The only way to do this would be through a programme of training and upskilling existing workers, investing in research and development and new technologies and through both of those routes increasing productivity. To this would be added a series of unpalatable options for example increasing the resources available to the NHS by introducing an insurance model to pay for it.

To date the UK has failed to do this and there has not even been a quiet and sober debate about the economic implications of population decline and the potential of immigration to help ease it. In the meantime productivity is not improving in line with other nations.

There’s no excuse for this. Indeed if we want to look at what’s ahead as the population continues to age we only have to study Japan, which has the oldest population on earth coupled with strong cultural opposition to immigration.

Here more than 20 percent of Japan’s population is over 65 years old. By 2030, one in every three people will be 65 or older, and one in five people 75-plus years old.

The IMF also calculated that the impact of aging could drag down Japan’s average annual GDP growth by one percentage point over the next three decades.

Japan has responded by relaxing restrictions on foreign workers alongside more familiar measures such as increasing both the age of compulsory retirement and the age at which people qualify for pensions. But it is still left with a big challenge. A UN study reckons it will need to raise its retirement age to 77 to maintain its worker-to-retiree ratio.

It is trying to bridge the gap through innovation and increasing use of artificial intelligence but in the meantime faces critical staff shortages in key areas, like health care.

In that context it seems insane to be restricting immigration to appease the far right when doing so will negatively impact growth and exacerbate skills gaps, especially when we consider that much of what we read about the negative impact of immigration is either lacking evidence or false.

They are not “coming over here, taking our jobs.” The reality is there are unfilled vacancies which are growing.

They do not drag wages down. Hourly real wages for the UK have risen thanks to the introduction of, and subsequent increases to the minimum wage. However employers have exploited cheap imported labour in the past – and the availability of cheap labour did inhibit investment. This needs to be acknowledged.

They are not the cause of rises in house prices. Estimates suggest that “a one percentage point increase in the population due to migration leads to a one per cent rise in house prices.” But as we know the biggest factor by far in house price increases is the current restriction in housing supply.

They are not a drain on public finances. The evidence is the reverse. As part of the preparations for Brexit the Migration Advisory Committee was commissioned to examine the impact that immigrants from the EU had on the economy. It concluded: “In 2016/17, EEA migrants as a whole are estimated to have paid £4.7bn more in taxes than they received in welfare payments and public services. This

contrasts with the UK-born population who had a deficit of £41.4bn and non-EEA migrants who had a deficit of £9bn.”

Part of this is explained by the fact that, on average, EU immigrants have higher educational and skills levels than the UK born population which translates into higher salaries. The inescapable conclusion is that they were good for the economy.

They are putting a strain on hospitals and the health service. In health a high proportion of expenditure goes towards older people. In the case of EU immigrants they are, generally, in better health than UK born people of the same age, and therefore less likely to require health care.

There is therefore room for a quiet, well-mannered debate which can discuss immigration, rigorously scrutinise the evidence attached to claims surrounding it, and consider the consequences of further restrictions on an ageing population.

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