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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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.