Friday, June 22, 2012

How Labour really got it wrong on immigration

At the moment, British political parties appear to be in a race to the right on immigration. Theresa May has made many announcements about how Labour 'got it wrong' on immigration and that the Tories now have to fix the 'mess' in which Labour left the country. Now Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, has acknowledged that Labour let in too many immigrants.

Most of the discourse now follows this pattern:
1. We have too many immigrants and we don't know what to do.
2. Why, oh why, did we let so many people in?
3. Immigrants take money out of the system and take British jobs away from British workers.
4.Net migration is out of control.
5. We have to stop immigration.

However, all of this misses several important points.
1. At most, immigrants have no effect on the economy.[Footnote 1] They have no access to the benefits system, unless they are applying for asylum or have received recognition as a refugee - and these benefits are meagre. There are a wide range of estimates about how much immigrants contribute to the economy, but, with the exception of Migration Watch, both government estimates and a wide variety of think tanks have concluded that immigrants have a neutral to positive impact. Furthermore, the Migration Watch figures are problematic in their treatment of the numbers.

2. Immigrants, even when they qualify for benefits (which is generally limited to contributory benefits into which they have already paid or to those who hold the status of permanent resident or refugee) are far less likely to apply for benefits than British nationals.

3. The majority of illegal immigrants are estimated to be visa overstayers. This means that they entered the country legally but did not leave when their visas expired. The number of people entering through people smuggling operations, or hidden on various means of transport, are small in comparison. This is connected to point 4:

4. The UK doesn't have exit checks, so the Home Office has no actual idea how many people are actually in the country. All figures are based on estimates, samples from the International Passenger Survey and educated guesses about flows of people. This is part of why so many of the illegal immigrants are visa overstayers. As long as these immigrants work in jobs that don't ask for ID checks and they don't appear on the police radar, try to apply for benefits, or leave the country and try to re-enter.

5. The government can't stop most immigration, as the majority of immigration is family members, protected persons (refugees and those given other exceptional leave to remain) and EU migration. Subtract student immigration, which has no rights for post-work study any more, and there is a relatively small percentage of immigration that the UK can limit.

6. The current government has politicised net migration figures, which means people coming into the country with intentions of staying a year or more minus those leaving the country with intentions of staying away for a year or more, thus excluding tourists, short-term business trips, and short-term academic exchanges. Net migration has not been dropping, but immigration has been dropping. Net migration has not dropped because fewer Brits are leaving to live abroad.

The most important point, though, is this:
7. Without the immigration rates under Labour, the UK would already be facing demographic change similar to Germany. This would mean much higher burden on the pension system and a contracting labour force.

The way that Labour (and governments before and after) got it wrong is this: although visa fees have risen more than 800% since 2004, when the Home Office was given the right to reclaim more than the administrative costs, this money is not hypothecated, i.e. the money raised from visa fees over and above the administrative costs is not used to address the strains on services (interpreters and translation costs in healthcare, schools, etc.) created by immigration. Thus, even though the immigrants are paying their way and are net contributors, the inevitable need for extra support for teachers, doctors, etc., are not addressed through the visa fees, and communities with greater strain do not receive the extra help they need.

There is no specific 'threshold of tolerance' after which a society breaks down because it cannot accommodate more diversity. The strains can be addressed through providing extra support and education for the communities most in need. There needs to be more two-way dialogue between different portions of society, but there is no less interaction between minority groups and the white British population than there is between many of the different segments of the white British population itself: how much do working-class Britons mix with the upper classes, for example?

Instead of addressing these problems, the current rhetoric simply blames immigration for many of society's ills. This blame game can hardly help the situation and is likely to fuel racist attacks, both physical and verbal, and these attacks will affect not only immigrants but also British-born British nationals, whose non-white skin will target them for abuse. Instead of pandering to the public's ignorance, politicians should take apart the myths about immigration and take the time to educate the public.

[1] Home Office report (Gott and Johnston, 2002) found a net positive contribution of £2.5bn in 1999-2000; Institute for Public Policy Research (Sriskandarajah et al., 2005) found a net contribution of £1.9bn for 1999-2000; Rowthorn (2008) found much smaller positive contributions for 2003-2004 of £0.6bn; Migration Watch (2006) classified children of mixed nationality couples differently and concluded there was a negative impact of -£1bn for 1999-2000 and -£5bn for 2003-2004;
Treasury data: Immigration contributed £6 billion to the UK economy, 2001-6; National Institute of Economic and Social Research: immigration added 3% to GDP between 1998-2005

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