10 January 2012

Migration evidence should deepen public debate

View all news

Today’s report from the Migration Advisory Committee on migration impacts is a valuable and timely contribution to the national conversation about immigration. That conversation is sorely needed.  The report requires robust analysis, combined with sensible assumptions about what we are measuring and a proper regard for seeing how immigration nourishes and shapes is in the medium and long run.

The report is a serious attempt to look at how impacts can be measured and, where appropriate, monetised. But nevertheless it raises as many questions as it answers. For instance, when looking at economic gains for UK plc, whose welfare are we examining? Are the gains to national income to be assessed across the resident population only, or across residents plus the immigrant population? This has major implications for areas such as public finances since new migrants tend, on the whole, to make a bigger contribution to tax revenues than their native born counterparts. Equally, if gains and losses are measured among residents but not newcomers, this approach inevitably has less credibility once the position of ‘second generation’ migrants is taken on board.

The big complaint has always been that migrants take away jobs and that resident Brits are disadvantaged as a result. Here the report focuses on migrants from outside the European Economic Area and finds that some native born Brits have lost out. This indicates that greater selectivity in immigration in the past few years has been sensible, but, we should remember that these findings do not necessarily hold up when looking at economically buoyant times. So the complaint can wear rather thin.

There is another important qualification. This is that migrants do not just affect the job market in a static way. Rather, many migrants choose to come here because they complement the skills, experiences and networks of existing British workers. The result is that native Brits (as well as new immigrants) gain from the dynamic effects of immigration. These are the impacts on productivity, innovation, creativity and flexibility that come about because many, though not all, immigrants do different things to natives: they start new businesses, they create new markets for existing output, they revive and develop previously declining sectors, and they offer employers a fresh work ethic. All of these elements breathe fresh air into the lungs of our economy and into the society we have successfully become.

Finally, today’s MAC report contains a fresh analysis – from a team led by me – to show that non-EEA migration has no measurable negative impact on the cohesiveness of British society. How well we get along and how far we feel that others – immigrants and non-immigrants – are playing their part is, it turns out, only significantly affected by the level of local deprivation. So critics who cry that non-European immigration is harming our social fabric and sense of common purpose are off the mark. Community cohesion, of course, masks and reflects a variety of impacts of immigration that are felt from jobs to schools to housing. But, crucially, the evidence suggests that the ties that connect and unify us as a society are not damaged by recent newcomers.

A national conversation is long overdue and needs to be led by evidence rather than assertion. The MAC’s report assists that task and gives us a chance to ask whether, or how far, we are thinking about the impacts and contributions of immigration in the right way. British Future contends that the frame of reference should be wider and deeper than we have seen in the past, and should also examine the nuanced ways in which our national self identity has been reshaped.

None of that is to say that ordinary people are not concerned about immigration. Many are, and often understandably. But the concerns will be partly about real objective impacts, partly shaped by rough, subjective perceptions and partly driven by specific definitions about whose lives and well-being counts – and whose does not. The recent British Future poll acknowledges these concerns and goes further is highlighting that the British people are not naive in understanding that immigration carries important obligations in terms of mixing and learning from one another. These obligations fall on government as well in creating the right tone to allow immigration to be a central aspect of our present and our future.


By Shamit Saggar

Shamit Saggar is a trustee of British Future, and co-authored the MAC study on the impacts of social cohesion and integration published today.

British Future’s latest activity on Twitter