Well, there are only 3 weeks left (ish) until probably the biggest vote any of us able to vote will take for the next 50 years. The EU referendum. As a topic, for a lot of people the single biggest turn off since the first time they realised that their parents had sex. The reason for that disengagement is varied, and consists of several strands according to various insights and polls produced for our delectation. For some people it is a lack of hard facts, for others it is the language and behaviour of both sides of the argument – spurious figures, absolute certainties shared, fears mongered. There is also some concern over the topics that the debate seems to now centre on – immigration, the economy and control / democracy.
Now this is only a little blog, so I am going to focus in on just one of these areas – and the one that still a lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about – immigration. It is probably the most pertinent and divisive of the areas. After all, where were all these democracy warriors when the referendum on proportional representation was happening? Probably best to set a few ground rules for myself though. Firstly, talking about immigration, and the volumes of immigration, and the process for managing immigration is NOT racist. Some views might be, but the subject itself isn’t. It worries a lot of people, and so is well worthy of consideration. Secondly, in any discussion about remain or leave there are a limited number of hard facts. There is only evidence and expectation, assessment and opinion. But where possible I will try to bring in what facts there are.
A lot of the arguments about immigration really focus on one thing – the sheer VOLUME of inwards migration of people from Europe and our ability to control it to suit our needs. Indeed the UKIP Leader Nigel Farage has gone so far as to claim that Britain “is in the grip of an immigration crisis” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-surrey-34348834 ) and that we can’t do anything about it until we leave Europe – as they set our immigration policy. But we need to pick this apart in to chunks that we can consider, and see what stacks up.
So, we should really look at whether immigration has increased to the UK firstly, and whether Britain is particularly special in this. Next we need to define what a crisis would be and whether what we are experiencing is one, and if we are, is it being caused by immigration. Finally, we should look at specifically the impact of Europe on that migration level, and whether leaving the EU would help.
So, is immigration higher now than historically? Well, almost certainly. Various studies have been done on long term trends on migration. Just between 1960 and 2000 the growth in the number of people living outside of their birth country is 100 million. That is 100 million more migrants in just 40 years (http://www.jstor.org/stable/27645348?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents ). Clearly, that is a huge amount. But is this particularly surprising? Simply factoring in advances in travel, our economies (and how we work) and the increase in the middle class, you would expect more people to be living, working and settling overseas. So it is not unfair to say that we are seeing more immigration now than before. But this is part of a global trend. The problem with trying to put barriers in place for inwards migration is that those same barriers then go up for outward migration too.
Are we taking the brunt of this immigration (from a European perspective) in the UK? Certainly there has been an ongoing attempt by the media to create a “moral panic” about Eastern European flooding to the UK to either steal our low paid jobs or live off our benefits system (or from some people, confusingly, live off our benefits AND steal our jobs). Actually, when we look across Europe we are pretty much middle of the pack in how many immigrants we have living in our country. This graph is from 2009, but is a good indication:
( http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/sep/07/immigration-europe-foreign-citizens ). So whilst the overall average level for the EU is 6.4%, for us it is 6.6%. Hardly evidence that we are an outlier in this case.
Still, size isn’t everything. It is still possible this is a crisis. What should really decide that is the impact it has on the receiving country. So even though we are not receiving lots more immigrants than other countries it is how they are affecting the indigenous populations that can really have costs (and in some cases benefits). In fact the official Vote Leave campaign points out two areas in particular – the NHS and schools ( http://www.voteleavetakecontrol.org/our_case ). But also in other areas people genuinely have concerns – availability of housing, access to jobs and the impact on our culture. All of these have been raised as problems of uncontrolled immigration.
It is a quite simple supply / demand question. You have to do one of two things - either increase supply or reduce demand. "Get control of our borders" rhetoric is about a belief that you can reduce demand (but there are strong arguments it wouldn't have any impact). The alternative is to increase supply of all of these things.
1) The majority view of experts is that just in order to stand still in terms of housing we need to build 250,000 new homes each year. No government has achieved that since 1980. In fact, since the economic crisis in 2008 housebuilding has tanked (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/live-tables-on-house-building table 211). And I am not suggesting we concrete over the green belt – there are £12 BILLION of empty homes in the North West alone (http://www.mancunianmatters.co.uk/content/070811937-housing-crisis-%C2%A312billion-worth-homes-lie-empty-across-north-west-according-report )
2) When the last coalition government had an opportunity to secure the NHS and pump extra money in, they instead pushed ahead with a costly top-down re-organisation. One which makes the NHS much more privatisation-ready. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-31145600 )
3) LAs are no longer allowed to open new schools where they are needed - these can only be opened at the mercy of the open access academy system. This is purely to break the link between those dangerous left wing county councils and school leadership.
4) LA funding and social services funding has been strangled on the back of an austerity drive which has ADDED to the national debt, not taken away from it.
5) We are currently told by the government that we have the lowest unemployment figures in a long time at 5.1% and holding (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36320028 ).
So really, this crisis is not one made from too much demand, but one created by too little supply. Quite simply, our governments have created this issue. And migrants are a handy scapegoat for us to blame. Of course, all of these things have to be paid for, and have a cost to the economy too. How can we do that?
Well, migrants are actually net CONTRIBUTORS to our economy (http://www.cityam.com/213058/eu-immigrants-contribute-463-second-uk-economy ) – in other words having migrants actually means we have more money to pay for services even after taking account of the cost of providing services and benefits to them. Where has this extra money gone? Over the period of tory-imposed austerity that has led to many of these cuts the government have managed to find the space to cut corporation tax to 18% - even though there is zero evidence base this brings more companies and employment. The real pressure on services has been created by the recent governments this country has had – none more so than the coalition and current governments. I don’t deny that there are crises in all of these areas – but the cause is much closer to home.
So, a fairly fact informed consideration of immigration (I hope) and we haven’t yet mentioned EU Brexit OR been racist (I REALLY hope). We should probably turn to one of those two topics now – Brexit. How much of our immigration comes from within the EU as part of freedom of movement rules? Again, trying to arm ourselves with the best facts available, the ONS reckons that EU migration makes up less than half of our inwards migration (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/may2016 ). Not only that but MORE of the EU citizens coming here have definite jobs to go to than ever before (about 60%). So most of our migration comes from outside the EU, and those from within the EU come here with definite jobs. So if we could stop EU immigration we would only be stopping half of the inflow – and a half with a good track record of helping our economy.
Maybe that would be enough? Perhaps cutting immigration in half would allow our underfunded services to get back to an even keel over time, house building could pick up etc. Well, there are still a couple of major challenges with that suggestion.
The first is that a lot of those services (particularly the NHS) rely on European immigrants to fulfil their staffing requirements (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jan/26/nhs-foreign-nationals-immigration-health-service ). A lot of other areas do too – construction being another. Not a great idea when you are trying to increase housebuilding.
The second problem is that leaving the EU does not guarantee that we would be able to refuse rules on freedom of movement if we wanted to trade with Europe. All of their other local trading partners who are NOT members of the EU have had this stipulation placed on them. It is almost certainly one that the EU would place on us too. So Brexit would not in any way guarantee us the ability to stop EU migrants, whilst at the same time carrying lots of other risks. Quite simply, Brexit do not know what would happen with free movement of Labour.
So, there you have it then. It is not racist to be worried about the crises in public services, in housing and in jobs. The problem is that you have been given the wrong cause of the problem by political parties and media alike. It is much easier for you to be told the problem is economic migrants (and by extension the EU). Actually, the problem has been our own leaders. So if you are still not sure which way to vote (and that will be many people given the way the campaigns have run) do think carefully. But do one thing right – don’t make your decision based on immigration. It is the wrong argument to be focussed on.