Immigration is a boon for society, and the EU should be praised for encouraging it

Populist rhetoric is hurting Britain, writes Petros Fassoulas.

If there is one thing that the British tabloid press and populist politicians (and many others besides) get exercised with and enjoy exaggerating about even more than the EU, it's immigration. No less during a time of economic crisis when scapegoats and easy answers are on high demand.

Immigration has been a cause célèbre for the coalition since coming to power. Promises to cut numbers of immigrants, attacking foreign students, even questioning the free movement of people in the EU have been employed to appease and at the same time fuel populist sentiments. It is also used as a stick to attack the UK’s membership of the EU, which is blamed for any perceived or real increase of immigrants. Rhetoric against immigration and the EU alike has been rife recently and it has been further inflamed because Bulgarian and Romanian citizens (whose countries joined the EU in 2007) are to be given access to the British labour market at the end of the year. Senior Conservative Ministers are already creating an atmosphere of speculation around the notion that such a move will produce negative effects.

But as it’s often the case with populist causes and tabloid obsessions the facts are widely ignored. Take the charge that immigrants come here to pillage Britain’s generous welfare system, for example. Figures from an IMF Working Paper collated as recent as 2011 paint an interesting picture. When measuring the gross replacement rates (the ratio of unemployment benefits a worker receives relative to the worker’s last gross earning) in the first year of unemployment across the world, Britain fares remarkably poorly. As one works his way down this table he quickly realises that our welfare system does not look all that generous, does it?

 

Country

Gross Replacement Rate, year 1 Ranking
Netherlands 0.7 1
Switzerland 0.687 2
Sweden 0.685 3
Portugal 0.65 4
Spain 0.635 5
Norway 0.624 6
Algeria 0.612 7
Taiwan 0.6 8
Ukraine 0.56 9
Italy 0.527 10
Denmark 0.521 11
Russia 0.505 12
Tunisia 0.5 13
Finland 0.494 14
France 0.479 15
Bulgaria 0.473 16
Canada 0.459 17
Romania 0.45 18
Hong Kong 0.41 19
Austria 0.398 20
Belgium 0.373 21
Argentina 0.354 22
Germany 0.353 23
Greece 0.346 24
Azerbaijan 0.338 25
Egypt 0.329 26
Venezuela 0.325 27
Belarus 0.313 28
Israel 0.307 29
Japan 0.289 30
United States 0.275 31
Kyrgyzstan 0.255 32
New Zealand 0.254 33
Latvia 0.253 34
India 0.25 38
Korea, South 0.25 37
Uruguay 0.25 36
Uzbekistan 0.25 35
Ireland 0.238 39
Hungary 0.235 40
Poland 0.226 41
Czech Republic 0.225 42
Australia 0.21 43
Turkey 0.206 44
Albania 0.202 45
United Kingdom 0.189 46
Brazil 0.152 47
Estonia 0.132 48
Lithuania 0.117 49
Chile 0.115 50
Georgia 0.09 51

 

It is hard to imagine that the hoards of Romanians and Bulgarians the Tories, UKIP and the right-wing press fear about will ignore pretty much every other country in the EU just to come here. Their narrative would have been a tiny bit more believable if at least the weather in Old Albion was a tad better.

Another popular charge against immigrants is that “they” are a burden on Britain’s welfare system. Again, the facts seem to disagree. A study by Christian Dustman, from the UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, found that in the year to April 2009 workers from Eastern Europe contributed £1.37 in taxes for every £1 of services they used. Native Britons on the other hand contributed just 80 pence for every pound of services they consumed. So, far from being a burden to our welfare system, immigrant workers make a considerable contribution to it.

What about the issue of unemployment and the way immigration impacts upon it?  Rhetoric tends to focus, especially during periods of economic contraction, on how immigrants force native Britons off the job market. But that is not necessarily the case, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research analysed the impact of immigration on the UK labour market using National Insurance registrations by foreign nationals and concluded that “there is no association between migrant inflows and claimant unemployment”. Furthermore, the NIESR tested for “whether the impact of migration on unemployment varies according to the state of the economic cycle and found no evidence of a greater negative impact during periods of low growth or the recent recession”. 

Apart from ignoring the facts and being based on scaremongering and scapegoating, the current rhetoric on immigration and the free movement of people in the EU gives the impression of a nation ready to raise the drawbridge and close itself off from the rest of the world. As a result it strands talented students and skilled labour overseas. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, warned that it is “making it difficult for universities and the City to attract talent from abroad”. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, went even further when she said, among other things, that the flurry of recent statements by senior ministers calling for a crackdown on "bogus students" had given the impression that overseas students were no longer welcome and was driving them towards competitor countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.

The Guardian newspaper quoted a study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which found that “overseas students are estimated to bring £8bn a year into the economy, a figure projected to rise to £16.8bn by 2025, according to a study”. Not a negligible sum, and one that the government’s rhetoric and policies risk jeopardising.

Immigration is neither a burden on our welfare system nor a threat to the domestic workforce, certainly not in the scale implied by certain politicians and newspapers. On the contrary, immigrants, who often take up job natives do not desire (the social care sector being a prime example) make a significant contribution to the economy (by spending on goods and services in this country and contributing to national GDP), the taxation and welfare system, the talent pool available in the labour market and last but not least the cultural wealth of Britain. Instead of demonising them we should be celebrating the role they play in this country.

Update:

Removed a paragraph incorrectly implying other countries had not yet opened their labour markets up to Romania and Bulgaria.

Photograph: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation