Labour has recently joined the Tories in drawing up a mea culpa for our record in Government. Some of these have a degree of merit. For example, Labour did not rebalance our economy; and Labour allowed many of the gains it made in social welfare and fairness, alleviating poverty for children and pensioners, to be so easily stripped away by this Tory-led Coalition. But our immigration policy should not be included in this list.
Labour did take action on immigration. It introduced an Australian-style points system as well as citizenship test. Yet by the end of our time in government, the dialogue had changed and all sides are calling for caps on immigration.
Yet we must recognise that immigration, far from being economically destructive to British people, has helped our economy. People came to Britain because of our booming economy from 1997-2007 and it is also, in part, because of them that the economy was booming. Measured economic migration helps the economy. Cameron, cutting student visas as far and as fast as he is cutting the economy, should remember this in the difficult economic situation that we now face.
Each year immigrants to the UK contribute 0.15% to our economy. This is no small matter – £2.18bn in 2010 in fact. If you measure the benefit in absolute contribution to GDP, the numbers will be even higher. With such meagre GDP figures being released, this 0.15% could well be the difference between positive and negative growth in the provisional 2011 release.
As a result, in an open letter to the Chancellor, Jonathan Portes writes that:
“There a simple way the government could boost growth not just in the short term but over the medium to long term, too, while reducing the deficit. That is to reverse the damaging restrictions the government has introduced on skilled immigrants and on students from outside the European Union.”
In his argument he even cites the Treasury’s own analysis which “implies that the cap on skilled migrants will knock between £3bn and £4bn off the UK’s GDP by the end of this parliament.” Cutting immigration, while popular, won’t free up jobs for British workers, instead, it could widen the deficit, causing more pain to families that are already squeezed.
Even more importantly, a NIESR study released last week has shown that there is no correlation between British unemployment and immigration, dispelling the myth of people taking ‘our jobs’. The NIESR concludes that there is:
“A lack of any significant correlation between migrant inflows and changes aggregate claimant count rates, in line with the general message emerging from previous research that migration has had generally negligible effect on unemployment rates.”
The point is that we cannot argue cause and effect at all when it comes to employment and immigration.
Further, Labour ministers were right to say that immigrants to the UK are, in fact, employed in jobs that British workers do not want, filling the gaps not just at the unskilled end of the market but at the professional end too. Data from the University of Oxford Migration Observatory show that immigrant are more likely to be employed in food preparation and cleaning than any other occupation in the unskilled end and in health, research and IT in the skilled end of the economy. With the fall in the number of British-born people reading science at university, it is no wonder that it is immigrants who are filling these occupations. As immigrants fill jobs that British people will not or are unable to take up, the NIESR report says:
“For a long period in the 2000s the overall UK employment rate was at the highest sustained level in recorded economic history, at the same time as immigration was also at historically very high levels”
However, no matter what their contribution, immigrants also take little back in return as another NIESR study has shown. This second study says “migrants overall impose somewhat less than proportionate costs on public services”.
Of course the debate is much more complicated than simple economics and we must remember the impact that excessive immigration has on the fabric of communities and the difficulties it can cause with housing. However, simplifying the argument to one which pivots on British jobs being taken away from British workers and immigration as a drain our economy is not only socially explosive but fundamentally incorrect as well.