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5 December 2023

Net migration is a distraction from other government failures, says top adviser

Brian Bell, chair of the government’s Migration Advisory Committee, wants politicians to be more honest about what targets actually mean.

By Will Dunn

Politicians must “spell out” why they think higher net migration is a bad thing, the New Statesman has been told by Brian Bell, chair of the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). He said that making policy which focuses solely on reducing the overall number coming into the country can be damaging to the economy.

Bell, a professor of economics at King’s College London, was appointed chair of the MAC in 2020. The committee is an independent body that advises the Home Office on immigration and reviews the impact of policies such as the shortage occupation list.

He described the government’s strict new immigration controls, which include a significantly higher salary requirement for skilled worker visas and a ban on health and care workers bringing their families to the UK, as “a set of clear policies that will almost certainly reduce net migration”. But he described the real effect on overall figures as “perilously difficult to predict”. He also warned that the UK has “very little information” on how many people who arrive as dependents are in work, and what work they do; the MAC is currently working to compile this data.

“It is also true that there is still no clarity on what the objective for net migration is,” he added. “It would be really useful if politicians of all persuasions actually explained why they want net migration to be lower or higher… and why they think a particular number is the right number.”

Bell said the economics of migration are subject to a number of important misconceptions. On one side, there is the idea that immigration grows an economy; despite 20 years of the UK gaining around a quarter of a million people per year, “it’s not as if we’ve had a growth miracle over that period”. Immigration grows a country’s GDP, which does matter for public spending and debt, but it also spreads it over a larger population, so real economic progress (GDP per capita) doesn’t change much. On the other hand, it is not true to say that immigrants put downward pressure on wages: “All the evidence suggests migrants earn about the same that we do,” said Bell.

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[See also: In 2024, Labour must offer hope]

The fiscal impacts are also more complicated, Bell said. Migrants are not a net cost on the NHS ­– the Immigration Health Surcharge, which will now be raised to £1,035 per year, “almost certainly means that on average, migrants are actually paying more into the system than they use it”. The opposite is true of education: each child dependent costs the schools budget an extra £5,229 per year. “That is a net cost to the taxpayer. And I think it’s perfectly legitimate for the government to question that.”

Net migration numbers have their uses; they are especially useful when they can be blamed for other policy failures. High levels of net migration will put some upward pressure on house prices, for example, but this only draws attention to the fact that housing is already critically unaffordable. “Is the failure that we shouldn’t have any immigration,” he asked, “or is it that we should have a proper housing system?”

Similarly, the UK’s increasing dependence on migrant workers for the NHS and social care is not a symptom of the fact that migration is dangerously out of control but that the UK is not training enough health professionals, and social care is dangerously underfunded. Bell warned that there would be “a crisis in the NHS workforce” if the foreign recruitment of nurses and doctors was substantially reduced. Migrant workers remain “crucial for the NHS”, and the only practical response is to train more British workers. “The right thing to do is to say, we’re not going to solve this immigration reliance next year, but in ten years’ time,” Bell explained. “Let’s hope that we have moved along that path.”

Bell said that in economic terms it is right to question whether a business that is built on cheap foreign labour should be able to operate: “Why should we have so many coffee shops, for example?” Coffee chains, he explained, often advocate for more low-wage immigration on the basis that it is hard to recruit British workers. “To which my response is, pay people more and encourage them; to which their response is, well, people won’t pay higher prices for coffee. To which my response is well, that’s not a business, then.”

This works for the wider economy, he said, because it forces companies to compete for workers, but the same is not true for social care. “If all we’re doing is saying: we’re going to allow more and more migrants to come in for social care, because we don’t want to pay more than the minimum wage, that means that more and more British people will choose to leave the sector, because you can earn more at Aldi stocking shelves. So it’ll just get worse and worse.”

To focus on a single number may be politically expedient, but it will not help address the problems for which immigration is often seen as a quick fix. “I worry sometimes that the net migration discussion comes down to where can we cut numbers just to get the number down, even if we think that that route we’re going to cut is exceptionally good for Britain,” Bell said. “A bit more nuance would be good thing.”

[See also: James Cleverly’s immigration plans are unconservative]

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