Migrants in the workforce: facts v fiction

Government policy does mercifully little to affect the labour market, even if it could be doing better.

NIESR's Jonathan Portes takes the time to critique Home Office minister Mark Harper. Harper said, in a comment on last week's labour force data release:

These figures show we are building a better immigration system that works in the national interest and is supporting growth. The rise in numbers in employment has benefited British citizens first, but our system is still allowing skilled migrants to come to the UK where they are needed by British businesses.

Portes argues that the labour force survey shows no such thing. When we look at the proportions of the working age population and of people in employment who are foreign born, we find a stark correlation, and a smooth trend. The trend is slightly accelerated by the new EU member states in 2004, and temporarily stalled by the recession, but largely consistent:

 

As Portes writes:

It is difficult - or at least certainly far too early - to see any significant change in the long run trend here. It is therefore difficult to see how changes to the immigration system could have had any substantial impact, as yet, on the employment of the UK born.

Thankfully, if the solution is imaginary, so too is the problem. Harper is continuing a Tory meme that "new jobs go to migrants".

Here's Fraser Nelson's take on the meme, for instance:

Over the 12-month period to which Osborne refers [Q2 2010 to Q2 2011], 90.1 per cent of the extra employment amongst the working-age population can be accounted for by an increase in foreign nationals working in the UK.

As Portes points out, thought through for a couple of seconds, such a claim is clearly nonsense:

Think about where you work. How many of the last ten people who were hired were immigrants? In most workplaces, probably none, one, or two. Very roughly, about 20,000 people start a new job every working day in the UK — the vast majority were born here.

The claim is actually just a restatement of arithmetic fact. The proportion of the population which is foreign born is increasing almost as quickly as the workforce. Rephrasing that as "foreign nationals taking most jobs" is as untrue as it would be to say that between 2009 and 2011 219 per cent of new jobs were taken by disabled people.

The government's policy has little effect on the stats cited above because the government's policy has little effect on immigration. It can only fiddle at the margins, thanks to the combined pressures of EU migration and British emigration. That's not to say it can't still do a huge amount of damage, as Cameron learned to his cost when he had to go pleading to India to promise better treatment at the hands of UKBA; and if we're talking about pro-growth migration policies, there's only one, and it's more migration.

But we'll still see the same old hackneyed arguments come up tomorrow, when the immigration statistics come out. So consider this a pre-buttal. Whether or not the government has achieved its populist target of slashing net migration, it's doing mercifully little to affect the labour market, even if it could be doing better.

"So, which line is the one for the job-stealing scum and which is for patriotic Brits spreading wealth abroad?" Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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