The University of Manchester’s Professor Martin Walker argues that the debate over immigration has suffered obfuscation on all sides – with anti-immigration voices refusing to acknowledge the economic necessity and benefits of immigration to the United Kingdom, and an equal unwillingness on the opposing side to recognise the extent (and skewed distribution) of its economic and social costs.
- The immigration debate continues to polarise public opinion.
- The economic benefits of immigration remain essential to Britain’s post-Brexit success.
- An honest conversation about immigration must recognise the uneven distribution of its benefits and costs over recent decades.
- Policy-makers must address this inequality, but from within the wider framework of an immigration system that works for all.
Concerns about the costs of immigration were a major driver behind the Brexit vote.
These concerns were amplified during the run-up to the referendum as official statistics reported continuing high levels of net immigration from the EU.
To some extent, the debate about immigration has become polarised, with one side seeking to claim that immigration brings significant benefits to the UK, whilst the other side highlighting the costs. Sadly, xenophobia has also been allowed to play a role.
However, making the UK an attractive as a place to relocate for high quality workers will be vital if we are to achieve the Government’s recently proclaimed ambition of the UK becoming the free trade centre of the world. An aim now likely to be further complicated by the May government’s attempts to negotiate industry-specific customs unions with the EU for sectors of vital economic interest, such as financial services, car production, and others.
Eyes wide open: Reviewing the evidence on immigration
Our view is that there needs to be a calm and measured review of economic migration to the UK which seeks to identify, in considerable detail, not only how the costs and benefits of immigration arise, but also how the costs and benefits of immigration are distributed both geographically and socially. It should not escape anyone’s notice that the economic benefits of immigration have tended to accrue to those in the higher income quartiles, whilst the costs (particularly in service and wage pressures) falls disproportionately further down the income scale. Unless and until this is recognised and becomes part of a responsible discussion about immigration, there is going to remain a fundamental divide between what our mainstream political parties are saying and the reality of life for millions of people across the country – this is the gap that UKIP and other extreme voices are currently filling.
This review should explicitly acknowledge the fact that net immigration, whilst beneficial for the country as a whole, causes significant costs to the country, and that the costs and benefits of immigration are not shared evenly throughout the population. In particular, when immigrant populations become highly concentrated on a particular area or city, the costs to the local domestic population can be very high in terms of the effects on local housing, schools, and medical care. Consideration also needs to be given to the fact that the wages of some parts of the working population may suffer more greatly from competition from migrant workers for jobs than for others.
Many of these pressures have also been amplified by the failure of EU regional policy to create jobs, opportunities, and increase living standards in those countries that have most recently joined. Too much EU money is spent serving the vested interests of well-connected sectors in long-established member states, for example in unnecessary and often unproductive subsidies to French agriculture via the Common Agricultural Policy. This policy failure (which is both unlikely to change and, once Article 50 is triggered, no longer within our power to affect) is driving the economic migration of labour which could otherwise be deployed in the virtuous circle of production, consumption and tax revenue generation in their home countries.
Britain, Brexit, and Better Policy
We would argue that the Brexit vote may well have turned out differently if only the UK government and its civil service, had been more sensitive to the way the costs of immigration have fallen disproportionately on certain parts of the UK population.
Having better information about how the costs and benefits of immigration fall across the UK, should allow the UK government to develop its thinking on how best to control the level and types of immigration overall. In addition it should help it identify strategies for ensuring that the costs of immigration do not fall disproportionately on particular sectors of the population. In particular it will be essential to ensure that lower paid workers are not disadvantaged by immigration.
One potential policy solution that a wider review could explore is the concept of work permits tied explicitly to employment in economic priority areas, such as advanced materials, information technology, and hi-tech manufacturing. Policy responses that may also help with re-balancing the distribution of the relative benefits and costs of immigration could be both local retention (and prominent publication) of tax revenues estimated to be generated by immigrants, and a potential tax surcharge levied on employers for the first few years after employing a worker from another country – this will not only incentivise companies to employ British workers wherever possible but also recognises the fact that the overall costs of employment are not equal.
Immigration that works for all
Our government needs to massively increase its commitment to research into the effects of immigration, the distribution of benefits and costs, and the policy options available to make immigration into the United Kingdom work for the good of all. It can be done, and immigration can be made a progressive force for both our economy and society, but to state that this is the case under our current arrangements is to engage in the politics of fantasy at a moment when xenophobic populism has become a distinct threat to our political and social cohesion.
Unless we can find a way to have an honest conversation about immigration – one that emphasises its benefits and equally its costs – we are unlikely to find a way out of the polarising political moment we find ourselves in.