What's the impact of migration on the UK economy? Photo: Getty
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Are migrants good for the UK economy?

Analysing two apparently contradictory studies that have been published about the impact of migration on the UK economy.

Two studies about the impact of migration on the UK economy have been published which – if media reports are to believed – appear to contradict one another. A closer reading of these reports, however, shows that in fact they come to very similar economic conclusions. Even so, from reading them it is possible to suggest very different approaches to migration policy.

One study by Professor Robert Rowthorn led to headlines such as: “Further proof of damage created by immigration” and: “How mass migration hurts us all”.

The second study is a paper published by Lineskova and others in the latest issue of the National Institute Economic Review which led to headlines such as: “Reducing immigration would slow UK economy and lead to tax rises” and: “Cameron’s migration cap would leave Brits poorer and taxes higher

So clearly the two reports have created space for some news outlets to pick their own truth. But what should we make of these different studies – and what do they contribute to our understanding of the impacts of migration on the economy?

Long-term impact on GDP

Both studies look at different annual net migration scenarios in the future to provide a picture of the long-term impact of migration on GDP and GDP per capita. The future level of net migration (that is, the difference between immigration and emigration) determines the size and age structure of the UK population.

As shown in Figure 1, if all other things remain equal, a higher level of net migration is expected to lead to a larger UK population (see complete explanation here).

But migrants also tend to be younger than the overall UK population and net migration is also likely to decrease the “dependency ratio” – an assessment of the number of people of working age compared to the number of people of retirement age. For instance, Rowthorn suggests that the dependency ratio will be 3.5 percentage points lower with annual net migration of 225,000 compared to an annual net migration of just 50,000 (Rowthorn defines the dependency ratio as the number of people 65 years of age and above per 100 persons aged 15-64). Figure 2 presents the 15-64 years old population of the UK under different assumptions about net migration.

Rowthorn suggests that, given a set of assumptions about employment rates and labour productivity: “GDP per capita is 3% higher in 2087 with high migration than with very low migration”.

The paper by Lineskova and others looks at two scenarios: net migration of 200,000 and a lower migration scenario, which assumes that net migration is reduced by around 50% – close to David Cameron’s migration target of less than 100,000. They find that by 2060 GDP per capita would be 2.7% lower under the lower migration scenario.

Given the impact of net migration on the size and age structure of the UK population it comes as no surprise that both studies conclude that higher net migration will be associated with a higher level of GDP and GDP per capita.

Long-term fiscal impacts

The two studies also look at the long-term potential “fiscal implication” – the impact on UK government finances – of migration to the UK. Rowthorn also looks at the short-term fiscal impact of migration. Rowthorn scrutinises previous analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility which suggests that lower levels of net migration will lead to higher public sector net debt to GDP (see Figure 3). While Rowthorn does not contest the validity of the OBR estimates, he underlines the high levels of uncertainty related to these estimates.

The paper by Lineskova and others suggest that under the lower migration scenario to “keep the government budget balanced, the effective labour income tax rate has to be increased by 2.2 percentage points”. Again, this refers to estimates for 2060.

Both studies come to similar conclusions – that lower levels of net migration will impose greater pressure on national debt over GDP. This effect is just the result of faster ageing of the population with lower levels of net migration, and corresponds with standard economic thinking.

Why the different implications? There is agreement on the general economic effects of higher net migration in both studies: that conclusion is that higher levels of net migration lead to higher GDP per capita and lower net debt as a share of GDP. Where there is disagreement is about the need or desirability of higher net migration.

Social impacts

The Lineskova makes a straightforward economic argument from this about the benefits of migration in maintaining an age structure which supports economic growth. They do not venture into providing policy prescriptions and accept that their analysis does “not take into account the potential social impacts of higher migration”.

Rowthorn, however, emphasises that it may be preferable to have lower levels of migration even at the expense of faster ageing. He suggests that the levels of migration required to increased GDP per capita or lower future public debt are so high that their social impacts may outweigh the positive economic benefits. He points to potential problems such as overcrowding of public facilities (including schools, hospitals, roads), limited supply of housing and strain on natural resources (for example water) as additional reasons for preferring lower levels of migration.

This goes back to the essence of the migration debate in the UK. Economic estimates are important, but limited in that they cannot resolve important judgements about the type of society people want. These preferences over the “sort of place we want to live in” can drive people’s views and choices on migration just as much as the “pure” economic factors.


Carlos Vargas-Silva does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Carlos Vargas-Silva is a Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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