I should start this week’s column with a public health warning. If you’re someone who has never understood why successive governments have allowed tens of thousands of people to move here each year when we’re a small, already pretty densely-populated country, what follows may shock you. I hope it will lead you to change your view at least a bit, though there’s a risk that it will simply infuriate you. Anyhow, consider yourself warned.
Last week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development published a report which showed that immigration makes a positive contribution to the public finances of many countries, including the UK. Yes, you read that right: migrants in the UK pay more in tax than they consume in public services (that’s not true of every migrant of course, but collectively they make a net contribution). Without them, we would have to make further cuts to public services or pay higher taxes or both. The Telegraph’s James Kirkup has the details.
Of course, that’s not the story we’re told by parts of our media or in the "pass it on" emails we receive, but it’s the truth. And coming on top of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s analysis that immigration adds to economic growth, it is further confirmation of the economic case for immigration.
Despite all the evidence, the anti-immigration lobby can’t bring themselves to admit this. They want you to believe that immigration is a bad thing, when in truth it has benefits as well as costs. They know that if they admitted the truth, fewer people would support their position, as a recent poll for Migration Matters (which I co-chair) confirmed. Nonsense, they say, there is no evidence that immigration increases GDP per head. But this is a straw man. GDP per head is essentially a measure of productivity. Nobody is claiming immigration significantly increases that. What the evidence shows is that it boosts GDP itself – the size of our economy. And because migrants tend to be younger and more economically active than the population as a whole (this is of course a generalisation – the reality is that some types of immigration are more economically beneficial than others, of which more shortly), it also helps us deal with our debt problem at least in the short to medium term.
So what does this all mean in terms of our immigration policy? Well it doesn’t mean that we should just return to Labour’s policy of allowing net migration of hundreds of thousands of people a year. As a constituency MP in a part of south London that has seen very rapid demographic change in recent years, I am well aware of the scale of public concern about this issue. And the economic arguments are not the only things we need to consider. There are valid concerns about the scale of population growth and the impact on public services and community cohesion, particularly given the fact that migration tends to be concentrated in particular parts of the country which are already the most densely populated.
What it does mean though is that we need a more nuanced debate. What is the right balance to strike between these competing concerns and what types of migration are of most benefit to the country? One of the biggest groups of migrants is foreign students. If you polled my constituents they would be pretty hostile to immigration per se, but I have never had anyone say to me, “What you need to do is stop all these bright Chinese and Indian students coming to this country”. Ditto highly-skilled people who are going to be net contributors and create work for others.
What my constituents are rightly concerned about is uncontrolled migration from within the EU, abuse of the student and family routes by people who are actually coming here looking for work, low-skilled migrants who compete with our unemployed for work and drive down wages in certain sectors of the economy and all the people who are here illegally.
The Prime Minister rightly says that the biggest challenge facing this country is how to win in the global race. We have to find a way to earn a living in an increasingly competitive world. Allowing the best and the brightest from around the world to come and study and work here can help us do that. So yes let’s make sure we have control of our borders, yes let’s tackle abuse, yes let’s talk about how many people and who we should allow to move here – but don’t let’s delude ourselves that immigration is always bad news.
This article originally appeared on The Telegraph website on 20 June 2013