Big gap between rhetoric and facts in immigration debate

Bordering on fiction: the immigration debate has drifted away from reality. PA

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, veteran Conservative minister Ken Clarke argued that immigration has contributed positively and significantly to the economy, and that EU free movement is unlikely to lead to “vast” or “unacceptable” levels of future immigration, particularly from Romania and Bulgaria.

Clarke’s intervention exacerbated infighting among Tory members of the coalition government, despite merely restating arguments made by many academics and other independent experts. However, Clarke was directly contradicting recent statements from the prime minister and other senior ministers (notably Ian Duncan Smith and Theresa May), who have argued that “vast migrations” (the term used by David Cameron himself) have been accompanied by widespread “benefit tourism”, something that has yet to be identified in the available evidence.

Clarke’s intervention has significance far beyond Conservative Party HQ, because he alluded to several important aspects of migration that have been either conspicuously lacking or purposely misrepresented in the wider public debate.

‘Deluge’ that never was

First, the UK has not experienced increasing “waves” of migration since the 2004 EU enlargement which brought in eight central and eastern European countries – Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – known as the A8. This is easily demonstrated with freely available official data.

For the two years immediately following the 2004 EU enlargement, the UK did experience a significant inflow of (mainly) A8 nationals, with an annual high-point of 302,300 additional residents due to migration between mid-2004 and mid-2005. But net migration has fallen steeply since then, and currently accounts for a minority of annual population growth (natural change, such as a recent baby boom currently contributes more than net migration).

Migrants continue to account for a small minority of the population in almost all local authority areas in England and Wales, with A8 migrants accounting for just 2% of the total population. Putting this in perspective, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 6.5% of adults born in the UK have emigrated to live, work or retire in other OECD countries.

A second problema with the debate is the idea that the UK has experienced significant “benefits tourism”. This is not only claimed without supporting evidence, but in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Recent estimates published by the UK Office for National Statistics demonstrate that adults in the UK who were born in A8 countries have an employment rate of 79%, compared to an average of 72% for all UK residents, with the employment rate for those Bulgarian and Romanian nationals already in the UK at 77%.

A third troublesome dimension of the public debate is the under-emphasis on the positive impact of migration on the UK budget and wider economy. In his recent appearance before the Treasury Select Committee, Robert Chote, head of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility argued that immigration tends to “produce a more beneficial picture” for UK finances. Chote’s argument is supported by a recent study from University College London.

As migrants are more likely to be working age and in employment compared to the UK-born population, they contribute to a significant proportion of total income tax receipts while they are less likely to draw unemployment and other benefits, claim tax credits, or use publicly-funded education and health services - resulting in a substantial net contribution to the Exchequer.

The OBR has consistently argued that the UK requires a higher level of migration to fund future healthcare and pensions, and estimates that the closer the Government gets to its target to cut net immigration, the harder it will become to meet its deficit reduction targets.

Much has been made of a recent report suggesting that the UK economy could grow to be larger than that of Germany by 2030. What was not reported so widely was that this outcome requires ongoing migration into the UK. Or, to put it another way, limiting migration will limit economic growth in the UK – to the detriment of everyone.

‘Evidence-free’ rhetoric

A new, fourth, dimension to the migration debate is the call by some in the Conservative Party that the UK should have the right to veto EU laws of which they do not approve. The most obvious problem with this, as a tactic for cutting immigration, would be the self-inflicted economic damage it would cause: migration benefits the UK and so cutting migration reduces those benefits. It is quite correct to argue that this move would be illegal under EU law, but this argument merely distracts from the more fundamental point that it would harm UK economic interests.

Such a stance will also undermine David Cameron’s attempts to build alliances with other EU leaders in his efforts to promote reform within the EU. Tensions have already been growing with some other EU leaders, who may well be supportive of his wider reform efforts. In a recent report in the Financial Times, Germany’s Foreign Minister highlights the benefits of migration to Germany and the damage to German, as well as EU, interests that these and other UK proposals on migration would have. In short, this German politician, unlike his British counterparts, is putting evidence and economic interests above damaging political rhetoric.

We have now reached the point where senior UK politicians appear not to accept the vast prevailing body of evidence on the positive impacts migration has for the UK (including that coming from within offices of state), because it reveals the vacuity of their anti-migration rhetoric. An article in the New Statesmen by Matthew Goodwin examines the long-term danger of this strategy for our democracy. Analysing long-term trends in opinion polling, Goodwin argues that political rhetoric – in attempting to capitalise on popular hostility to immigration for electoral advantage – merely creates expectations that the mainstream parties are unable to fulfil. This increases support for “protest” parties, such as the BNP in 2006 and UKIP more recently, and leads to a wider disillusionment in the political system.

For many mainstream politicians, “evidence-free” rhetoric on immigration is becoming the norm. Although it may appear to them, and their supporters in the media, that fear of migrants and migration will serve their short-term political ends, historical trends in voter behaviour suggest they are unlikely to be rewarded in the long-term. In the end they are stoking expectations they will not, and should not, be able to meet.

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