Calm hysteria and assess the real local impact of migration

What’s really going on with migration? mckibillo

The Home Office recently published a sensible and thorough look at the local impact of migration. Did you read about it? You certainly won’t have in the Mail or the Telegraph, who apparently read an entirely different report - one focused on greedy migrants using our services and crowding out local people.

Welcome to the immigration debate in 2013: despite a decade of mass migration that has profoundly changed the country, we still can’t figure out exactly where migrants are going, what services they are using, or whether local areas can cope. Media hysteria certainly wont help matters.

What’s the impact?

Attempts to assess the local impact of migration are important, as policy makers must have something to go on when assessing the need for services and funding. The roots of the problem go back to 2001. The big spike in immigration occurred during the economic boom of the noughties, too late to be captured in that year’s census. So local authority official population estimates, based on the census, missed out these new migrants. Crucially, local authority budgets were also based on this data.

Since the 2011 Census, we are starting to get a more accurate picture of the demographic change the UK has experienced over this period. But we still don’t really know what the numbers mean for people actually living in areas that have changed, or for the agencies charged with planning and delivering public services to changing populations.

Stats, consultations and expert advice

The Home Office report, Social and Public Service Impacts of International Migration at the Local Level, has started the process of properly mapping the actual local impacts of different migration patterns. The report reached its conclusions through a combination of statistical profiling, consultation with local authorities and other service providers, and discussions with relevant experts.

As one of the academics consulted, I read the document with enthusiasm. The report groups the UK’s local authorities into a dozen clusters, based on their demographic and socio-economic profile. It then carefully sets out the available evidence on the impacts associated with six main groups of migrants, including refugee families, low skilled migrant workers and international students, across a series of policy areas such as health, education, policing, cohesion and the local labour market.

A final section opens up a conversation about how we can think long-term about local planning and resourcing of services in the face of migration challenges. Such a conversation is vitally important precisely because it is in real places – real regions, cities and neighbourhoods – where the story of Britain’s changing demography is unfolding.

‘Overcrowding, tension, strain, toll’

How the Mail covered the report. @suttonnick

The following day, however, the report made its way into the press. The Telegraph headline was “Immigrants create overcrowding and fuel tensions, report finds”. The Daily Mail front page declared “True toll of mass migration on UK life: Half of Britons suffer under strain placed on schools, police, NHS and housing”.

Of course, it is difficult to translate a complex 59-page research report into a pithy newspaper article – and all governments spin the research they commission so it is reported in a way that fits their political agenda – but such articles bear little resemblance to the content of the report.

The Telegraph, for example, which normally has some of the best coverage of immigration issues, claimed that the report “found that immigrants were likely to lead to longer waiting times at GP surgeries, be involved in anti-social behaviour and create pest control issues because of overcrowding.”

But there is no mention of GP surgeries in the report, except to note that some groups of migrants may be accessing hospital services when GPs would be more appropriate. The report does talk about some serious issues for health service provision, but it also notes that many groups of migrants use the NHS far less than the population average, particularly as migrants are more likely to be healthy and young than the population as a whole.

Similarly, the report does not say that immigrants are more likely to be involved in anti-social behaviour. It actually says that there was no evidence for this, although lack of awareness of cultural norms in the UK (e.g. around street drinking) might lead to tensions on the street.

The Mail’s article, in contrast, was accurate in its reporting of the findings. However, it cherry picked them to highlight all the negatives without mentioning any positives. The key finding that a high level of migration only has a heavy impact on services in some sorts of locality was missed entirely.

Toxic debate

In response to such relentlessly unbalanced coverage, migrant NGOs and academics quickly took to social media to dismiss the report or to refute the negative findings. This is typical of a public debate which has become so toxic and polarised that it is impossible to make any statement about migration without appearing to be weighing into a (very asymmetrical) ideological war between “pro-” and “anti-” migration lobbies. Instead of evidence-based discussion, the facts are raided for examples of costs or benefits of migration to fit a pre-prepared agenda.

But, in reality, the demonstrable benefits of migration (especially economic) accrue at the national level while the equally undeniable costs (particularly social and service delivery related) fall at a local level.

A sensible conversation would take both of these scales seriously. That means attending to the very real pressures some local authorities face, and thinking hard about how to make local areas which are more relaxed about change and resilient in the face of local tensions.