For some, it’s the most important issue in recent times. For others, it’s an exhausted topic that is fuelled by mixture of nationalism and xenophobia. While discussions around migration have quietened since the referendum, they will return in full force once immigration policy becomes clearer from Brexit talks.
It’s one of those areas where rational discussion often breaks down: certain groups will shout the magic ‘r’ word at anyone who wants to cut down on immigration, but the existence of racist and hateful groups doesn’t do any favours either. Part of the issue is the ‘black vs white’ mentality around the topic: ‘pro-immigration’ vs ‘anti-immigration’ are two rather unhelpful group names. People who want tighter controls and more measured immigration are often unfairly put in the ‘anti-immigration’ category, despite not necessarily being so. Likewise, it might be tempting to believe a ‘pro-immigration’ person thinks that our borders should be wide open for anyone with a pulse, which is not necessarily true.
The point here isn’t whether we should embrace the diversity that multiculturalism offers or whether it threatens existing values and creates social cohesion. The point is that economically speaking: our labour market depends on immigration and will do for the foreseeable future. Advances in technology; increases in household wealth as well as huge strides in globalisation and international trade mean that that the demands and needs of Britain are not the same as those that existed in the 1970’s. The harsh reality is that 2017 Britain doesn’t produce the programmers, engineers or even nurses that our country needs. Freedom of movement currently gives the UK access to a pool of 740 million people who can help support gaps in the labour market – a tighter immigration policy may cause skill shortages to be higher as well limit dynamism in the economy.
When it comes to freedom of movement, there is a perception of low-skilled EU migrants flooding the gates. Yet a report from the LSE shows that EU nationals are twice as likely to have a university degree compared to UK-born individuals. Data I have gathered from the Office of National Statistics also dispels some of the myths around the typical industries that EU nationals work in:
The chart shows that migrants are employed across a range of sectors. There is no denial that there are low-skilled EU migrants entered the UK for work, particularly from Eastern European countries, however the fact that they are low-skilled doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a need for the labour.
‘This doesn’t mean we have open borders!’, I’m sure some will say, advocating for an Australian-style points based system. The UK already has a points based system for those outside the EU (which make 67% of migrants) and it is a fair line of thought that this should apply to EU citizens too. Yet it’s important to remember that EU nationals who come via freedom of movement don’t enjoy the same access to the welfare system as UK citizens. They are part of the workforce and often fill the gaps needed to make modern Britain tick, while also paying UK taxes.
Having a point system for EU nationals would firstly be more expensive, but also the added red-tape for skilled migrants will act as a deterrent – particularly when they can go to other EU nations without any issue. Sectors such as construction could be the worst hit. Nursing is also a worry with a 96% drop in nursing applicants from the EU since the Brexit vote. No one is offering a radical solution to how these issues will be addressed.
We could draw ourselves into an almost politically philosophical debate about whether an individual state should have the sovereignty to control who enters the country. However as a matter of pragmatics, there is almost no doubt that the UK will suffer from the loss of a workforce that bring the skills and talents needed to keep the country rolling.
A major part of the issue is the concentration on immigration headline figures. Focusing on the number of migrants is counterproductive, producing ill-thought out policy which doesn’t address other issues within the system. The recent policy to make foreign students travel back to their home countries after their degree with no time to look for a job is an example. For those who are concerned about immigration, are the educated skilled immigrants the first group that people worry about? Students are easy targets to help drive the figures down, particularly as they are usually single and without families.
Both Labour and the Conservatives hate the topic, as people from either side of the spectrum have mixed views. Labour’s generally multiculturalist stance has caused a gorge between the metropolitan voters and the more typical working class voters. The Conservatives, as a pro-businesses party, support immigration economically while knowing that a fair number of their voters want see immigration reduced. In one sense, the Conservatives want to have their cake and eat it and Labour can’t decide on whether they want a cake at all.
To accept the economic needs of migration also means measures have to be put in place to support it. Public services need adequate funding. The expense of buying and renting will only worsen unless the rate of housebuilding increases. By not providing the infrastructure, it’s entirely understandable that intolerance for immigration will increase as migrants will become an easy scapegoat for those who feel the quality of public services has been eroded.
The point here isn’t about being pro-immigration, it’s about how 21st century Britain is dependent on it. Before any further calls to reduce immigration, particularly EU migration, there needs to be a further thought on government strategy to combat work shortages. Education policy will need to consider how we offer incentives for home grown talent to become trained for the jobs that the country needs. Until then, EU or out, immigration is here to stay.