The right tries to blame youth unemployment on immigration -- again

MigrationWatch has been allowed to get away with irresponsible scaremongering for too long.

Eighteen months ago, MigrationWatch published a report which attempted to show a relationship between immigration and youth unemployment in different parts of the UK. The methodology was comprehensively demolished here by my IPPR colleague Sarah Mulley -- but not before the report had generated the desired round of headlines such as "Migrants rob young Britons of jobs".

Today, as the nation worries about a "lost generation" with over a million young people unemployed, and an increasing proportion out of work for more than a year, MigrationWatch are at it again, with another report: Youth unemployment and immigration: more than a coincidence.

The report takes two dates -- 2004, when Eastern Europeans started coming to the UK in large numbers after the expansion of the European Union, and 2011. It notes that over this period in the UK, the number of Eastern European workers rose by around 600,000, while the number of unemployed young people rose by around 450,000. The head of MigrationWatch, Andrew Green, then comments that:

Correlation is not causation but when the two statistics are placed side by side most objective people would consider it a very remarkable coincidence if there was no link at all between them.

And while the report rambles on for another six pages, that's really about it. MigrationWatch have clearly learned the lesson of their last attempt: the more detail there is in their report, the easier it is for people who actually understand statistics or economics to show them up. Why bother, if simply asserting that the two numbers are suspiciously similar is enough to have the desired effect?

To anyone who is actually interested in how immigration affects our labour market, there is a good deal of high quality research on the subject: a useful review of the literature can be found here. In summary, while some studies have found some impact on wages, particularly towards the bottom of the wage distribution, hardly any studies have found any significant impact on overall unemployment. (Coincidentally, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research is publishing another report today, in the first major study to look at National Insurance Number data to examine the same issue.)

I don't wish to duplicate this body of research, nor get too deep into the detail of economic modelling; so I will confine myself to highlighting three points, which demonstrate the total inadequacy of MigrationWatch's report.

First, the choice of dates. MigrationWatch's chosen start-date is 2004. That is understandable, in the sense that it is when large scale Eastern European migration to the UK began. But it hides the fact that youth unemployment clearly started rising before that, around 2002 (see here). If immigration caused unemployment, you would expect to see immigration starting to rise first, followed by youth unemployment. In fact, it is the other way round. (Some readers might be tempted to reply that other kinds of immigration were rising before 2004. But while this is true, it can't help MigrationWatch, because those other kinds of immigration started rising in the late 1990s, after which point youth unemployment continued to fall for five years.)

Second, the fact that MigrationWatch focus on the change in the two variables across the whole period. This makes the numbers look at least vaguely similar. But what happens if you look in slightly more detail within the chosen period? If MigrationWatch's hypothesis was right, you would expect to see the steepest increase(s) in youth unemployment at the same time as, or shortly after, the big increase(s) in immigration. But here too, the picture is the opposite: the big increase in youth unemployment came in 2008 and 2009, during the recession caused by the financial crisis (that being a clue to what might really be going on), which was precisely the time when net immigration from Eastern Europe fell close to zero (see fig 2.2 here. To be fair to MigrationWatch, this is plainly visible in the graph on p.2 of their report, though it isn't mentioned in the report or in the press notice sent to the media.)

Third, the lack of any attempt to test the correlation across different parts of the UK, or across different countries. Of course, as I have already pointed out, when in a previous report MigrationWatch did try to show that the correlation held across different parts of the UK, it was an embarrassing failure. What about other countries? It looks unlikely that there is any correlation here: the countries in the 'old' EU which have seen the steepest rises in youth unemployment since 2004, including Spain and Greece, have not had very high levels of migration from Eastern Europe; while Germany, which has had relatively high migration from Poland (despite maintaining transitional controls for the longest possible period), has relatively low youth unemployment.

Given the contents of the report, its title -- More than a coincidence? -- is almost funny. But in the end, yet another media intervention, designed to generate a round of headlines (in the Express, Telegraph, and Sun, and on the BBC) blaming historically high youth unemployment on foreigners, isn't funny at all. It is irresponsible and pernicious, as well as a distraction from the serious debate over practical measures to alleviate youth unemployment -- including IPPR's proposal of a job guarantee for those out of work for more than a year.

Britain clearly has a youth unemployment problem: one which started before the financial crisis, but has since risen to critical levels. But its causes are too complex to be reduced to blaming immigration, just as the effects of immigration on the labour market are too complex to be reduce to the endlessly repeated headlines about "foreigners taking all the new jobs". New migrants compete for jobs with existing residents, but they also fill gaps, make our labour market more flexible, and bring energy and creativity, all of which promote growth -- meaning more jobs to go around. The net effect of all of this on the overall economy is hard to assess, but most economists agree it is positive. The net effect on different groups within the economy is even harder to assess. Again, for most, it will be positive -- though not for all. But this needs careful research, and honest presentation, not the kind of scaremongering which the media has let MigrationWatch get away with for too long.

Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cav_

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle