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30 November 2022

Leader: Why we need honesty on migration

Successive governments have relied on high migration to disguise the structural weaknesses of the British economy.

By New Statesman

For decades, British politicians have refused to lead an honest discussion about immigration, its benefits and its effects. Labour and Conservative governments have vied to appear “tough” – or have made unrealistic promises about net migration targets and “British jobs for British workers” – and then hidden from the consequences of their own policies. “It was as if the makers did not dare to tell the truth,” Ruud Lubbers, the former Dutch prime minister and one of the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, said of the reluctance of Britain’s politicians to be candid about what greater EU integration entailed.

Rishi Sunak’s government treated the recent news, that net migration to the UK has reached a record high of 504,000, as a failure that needed apologising for,  rather than an opportunity to explain and contextualise. The figures are not, contrary to reports, proof that the British immigration system is “out of control”.

Foreign students accounted for the largest proportion of immigrants (277,000) in the year to June 2022, a reflection of the UK’s world-class performance in higher education. As the Office for National Statistics noted, an additional factor was the return of students who studied remotely during the Covid pandemic. Precisely because they distort the headline figure, there is a strong argument for removing students from the net migration statistics entirely.

[See also: What’s wrong with the British economy?]

Humanitarian and other family visas represented the second largest share of immigrants (276,000), including 89,000 Ukrainians, 76,000 from Hong Kong and 21,000 Afghans or UK returnees from Afghanistan. (The figures do not include the estimated 35,000 undocumented migrants who arrived by small boats.) Britain’s decision to receive those fleeing authoritarian regimes is, again, something to welcome. But the system needs to be consistent and coherent.

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Only 151,000 non-EU migrants arrived in the UK for work purposes – one explanation for the apparent paradox of record net migration and the record number of job vacancies. Indeed, the end of free movement following Brexit means that net migration of EU nationals is now negative (-51,000). Mr Sunak’s government could have explained all this. Instead, it touted a potential “crackdown” on foreign students – which would be self-defeating. As Brian Bell, the chair of the government’s Migration Advisory Committee, observed: “Most universities for most courses lose money on teaching British students and offset that loss by charging more for international students.”

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[See also: How net migration to the UK has hit record levels]

In truth, both the Conservatives and Labour are seeking to appeal to an electorate that no longer exists. The British Social Attitudes survey found that, far from being hostile to migrants, most voters now believe immigration should either remain at its current level or be increased. The public favours more recruitment of migrants in sectors such as the NHS, construction, hospitality and agriculture. It also favours social cohesion, order and security.

An inconvenient truth for liberals is that Brexit has softened attitudes towards immigration. The end of free movement and the introduction of a points-based system, which applies equally to Europeans and non-Europeans, has reduced anxiety about uncontrolled migration.

But just as it would be reckless for the UK to treat immigration as an ill, so it would be foolish to treat it as a panacea. For too long, successive governments have relied on high migration to disguise the structural weaknesses of the British economy: a lack of training, investment and productivity. Spending on adult education alone, for instance, was cut by 49 per cent between 2009 and 2019. A record 2.5 million people are not looking for work because they suffer from long-term sickness – a reflection of a country that has invested far too little in public health. 

Hidden away in the recent report by the Office for Budget Responsibility was a remarkable forecast: “Only the higher-than-expected numbers of migrants coming to the UK under the post-Brexit migration regime adds materially to prospects for potential output growth over the coming five years.”

This explains why it would be self-defeating for the government to reduce immigration significantly – and why it ultimately has no intention of doing so. But it also signifies a failing economy – a country dependent on newcomers to boost overall GDP while individual living standards stagnate (real wages are now not expected to return to their 2008 level until 2027). An honest debate would begin by recognising that the UK has an economic duty to accept some migrants and a moral duty to ­receive others. But it would also reflect the truth that Britain has a broken social model.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s mildly authoritarian streak chimes perfectly with these troubled times]

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince