“We recognise the positive contributions immigration makes to the country and the economy,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said last week. “If we don’t have migration, we don’t have the growth from the economy that we all benefit from.”
He was responding to some concerns about the rate of immigration raised by Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead—but Downing Street’s claim that “if we don’t have immigration, we won’t have economic growth” has been stated over and over again since Labour took office in 1997.
If you repeat something often enough, you can perhaps make people believe it. What you cannot do is turn it from being false into being true. And the Government’s claim about the economic benefits of immigration is false. As an academic economist, I have examined many serious studies that have analysed the economic effects of immigration.
There is no evidence from any of them that large-scale immigration generates large-scale economic benefits for the existing population as a whole. On the contrary, all the research suggests that the benefits are either close to zero, or negative.
Immigration can’t solve the pensions crisis, nor solve the problem of an ageing population, as its advocates so often claim. It can, at most, delay the day of reckoning, because, of course, immigrants themselves grow old, and they need pensions.
The injection of large numbers of unskilled workers into the economy does not benefit the bulk of the population to any great extent. It benefits the nanny-and housecleaner-using classes; it benefits employers who want to pay low wages; but it does not benefit indigenous, unskilled Britons, who have to compete with immigrants willing to work hard for very low wages in unpleasant working conditions.
For low-skilled Britons, the result is that there are only two options: very low pay or unemployment. The economy becomes dependent on a constant influx of immigrants who are willing to accept low pay and poor working conditions. That is what Labour ministers mean when they insist that “public services would collapse without immigrants”.
It is bizarre that the Labour Party, which still continues to insist that it is the party of the poor and vulnerable, should endorse a policy the purpose of which is the creation of what Marx called “a reserve army of labour”: a pool of workers whose presence ensures that rates of pay for cleaners and ancillary staff in the NHS can be kept as low as possible.
Highly skilled immigrants—doctors, scientists, lawyers, accountants, even professional sportsmen—can provide economic benefits to the whole of society. Their skills can generate wealth, and they pay far more in taxes than they receive in benefits from the state. But most immigrants who arrive in Britain from outside the EU, and who hope to settle permanently here, are not highly skilled. Some have no skills at all. Many female immigrants do not want to work in paid employment, or are actively discouraged from seeking it by their spouses and families.
Unskilled migrants and their families often are net consumers of taxes: their children are educated in state schools, they are looked after when they have medical problems by the NHS, and they are eligible for state benefits if they are unable to find work. The new arrivals place a significant strain on the housing stock and delivery of public services in the neighbourhoods where new immigrants live: schools, hospitals and GP surgeries become more crowded, and state-subsidised housing gets more difficult to obtain.
The places where most immigrants can afford to live are usually already poor: they are forced to congregate in those areas where the native population is already disadvantaged. These are not, of course, the areas in which Government ministers and the nanny-and cleaner-employing classes choose to buy their homes. That may explain why they don’t seem to care about what happens to them.
It is important to dispense with some additional myths surrounding immigration. First: asylum-seekers are not the major cause of migration into the UK. Refugees and others granted special leave to remain under the asylum rules account for only 10 per cent of immigration to Britain. Most permanent immigration consists of people who are economic migrants together with their dependants.
They are here because they believe they have a better chance of a decent life in Britain than in their native country. They aren’t people fleeing persecution. Many of them have been given work permits by the Government.
Second: while Britain has always had immigration, the recent influx is totally without precedent in modern times. Relative to population, the scale of immigration is now much greater than during any period since the Anglo-Saxon and Danish invasions over a thousand years ago.
In 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 223,000 more people migrated into the UK than left it. Before Labour came to power, the number of people leaving Britain roughly balanced the number arriving, so the net contribution of immigration to population growth was modest. The total population of Britain was expected to remain roughly constant.
At the present rate of 223,000 additional immigrants every year, though, and adding the children that they will produce, the population of Britain will grow by more than 12 million to reach 73.2 million by 2046. There is no parallel for such a huge influx over a mere 40 years in our recorded history.
Most of the immigrants will settle in London and the South-East, because that is where the jobs are. There is already a chronic housing shortage in that part of England, a large portion of which is due to immigration.
It is difficult to see how many millions of extra people can be housed in the South-East without concreting over what few green field areas are left. Exacerbating the housing shortage and increasing the amount and density of built-on land, however, is only one of a series of transformations that will be triggered by the constant arrival of immigrants. They will inevitably completely change the culture and complexion of many cities.
I am not suggesting that all those changes will be bad, because I am sure that not all of them will be. While the immigration lobby tries to smear anyone who questions the benefits of large-scale immigration as “racist”, the real issue is not whether you like or dislike the social changes that the colossal influx of immigrants will bring.
It is rather that the Government has embarked on a policy that will totally change the nature of many of the communities in which we live without consulting any of us.
“We have have always been completely open about our case for migration,” said Downing Street last week. That is simply not true. Labour has never formally announced that it is committed to increasing immigration indefinitely: the closest any minister came to it was David Blunkett, who, as Home Secretary, announced that he thought there was “no natural limit” to the number of immigrants Britain could absorb.
But that’s about it. There was nothing about increasing immigration in Labour’s manifesto of 1997, or of 2001, or of 2005.
The only justification the Government has ever given for increasing immigration is the economic benefits it alleges immigration has for the existing population. But those benefits are a mirage, and if they are the only justification the Government has, it is following a policy which is based on a fundamental error.
We desperately need an honest debate on the issue. But if the Government’s record is anything to go by, it will do everything it can to prevent one.