Barely a week goes by without immigration being on the front page of one newspaper or another. In little over a week we have seen Ed Miliband and David Cameron slog it out over who is the toughest on immigration. Home Secretary Theresa May sent the tabloids into overload when she admitted she didn’t know the number of illegal immigrants who had entered the country this summer. There was also an e-petition calling for tighter immigration, which reached 100,000 signatories in just a few days and caused the resignation of UK border chief Brodie Clark, who is now suing the government for ‘constructive dismissal’.
I want to talk about the e-petition. There are so many holes in the concept of a petition that calls for the population not to reach 70 million that it’s hard to know where to begin. Firstly, and most importantly, the petition is based on a false premise. It says that according to official figures the population is predicted to reach 70 million by 2029. However the Office for National Statistics does not make predictions for the future; it makes projections based on current trends. Why is this small nuanced difference important? Well, because previous population predictions, using then current trends, have proved wildly inaccurate. For example, in 1965 the official projection was that the UK would possess a population of 75 million by 2000 when it in fact it was just under 60 million, a not-so-small difference.
Daily Mail readers were spitting out their cornflakes up and down the country back in August when they read the headline “Immigration up 20 %”, with Sky News adopting a similar line. However on closer inspection it becomes apparent that this statistic was patently wrong. In 2010, the number of immigrants coming to the UK was 575,000 and in 2009 it was 567,000 – a measly 1.4 per cent rise which would barely make page 23 of the Daily Express. But why let the truth get in the way of a good headline? And where does this mythical 20 per cent figure come from? As the graph from the ONS illustrates, the level of immigration has been relatively stable since 2004. It was net migration (the number of immigrants minus emigrants) that increased by 20 per cent in 2010.
This is a hugely important difference as the government has direct control over the number of people entering the country but little influence over the number of people leaving. The fact of the matter is, the rise in net migration is more to do with a fall in emigration, not a rise in immigration. So, really, if David Cameron and the coalition want to lower net migration then they should probably try and encourage more people to leave the country (although with the current economic conditions and austerity measures you’d be forgiven for thinking that that was exactly what they are trying to do!).
This negative press attention contributes to a growing resentment towards immigration. We often read that immigrants are a drain on our resources – ironically, accused of being lazy benefit scroungers and, simultaneously, “coming over here, taking our jobs”. From an economist’s perspective it’s worth pointing out that there is no finite number of jobs in our economy and our economic system is fluid, governed by the laws of supply and demand. One job for an immigrant does not equal one less job for a Briton. That particular migrant is going to pump his or her wages into the economy every month whether to buy food, clothes, pay for dentists or any number of things that people spend money on. A research piece by UCL shows that newcomers from Eastern Europe paid 37 per cent more taxes than they received from public services, compared to the average Briton who paid in 20 per cent less than they received. To put it into simpler terms, immigrants are not a drain on the welfare state – they are helping to pay for it. Not to mention all the migrants who help provide public services be they doctors, nurses, cleaners or other service provider. In a country with such a rapidly ageing population like Britain, we need to grow our workforce to help pay for those who have retired and are living increasingly longer lives. If we stop letting immigrants in, then who is going to make up the numbers?
The UK is undoubtedly one of the richest countries in the world. With every additional worker we will become richer still. If the prediction of 70 million is realised we may well surpass Germany as the largest economy in Europe. Yes, there are certain infrastructure issues with a growing population – more houses have to be built, more schools, hospitals, and so on – but with an increase in working population, there is also an increase in tax revenue to help pay for it. That is the intrinsic nature of development. Surely, we’d prefer building more schools to meet local needs, rather than closing down current ones because there are not enough children being born.
Instead of focusing on an arbitrary population figure, or legislating against factors that really can’t be controlled without strict birth planning policies, a much more constructive debate would be about what criteria we should set for those entering the country.
There are many reasons why I will not sign the No to 70 Million e-petition. Chiefly because I believe that we’re in a much better position as a country, economy and society with immigration than we would be without it. I don’t know what Britain, as a country, would be like with no outside influence and hopefully, I’ll never find out.
Photo Credits: Andy Rain/EPA
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