Has immigration been good for Britain? This was the central question debated at a fiercely-contested round table discussion held by Prospect, which set Stuart Wheeler, Treasurer of Ukip, against defenders of the Blair government’s policy.
The lead address was given by Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, who in his opening remarks said that: “The answer is pretty obviously ‘yes’”. He added: “Without immigration we would have considerably more skill mismatches between domestic labour supply and domestic labour demand.”
Migrants arriving in Britain from the EU tended to be skilled, and their labour has tended to lead to increases in economic output wherever they have settled, said Portes. “Most workers, on average, coming from abroad, have somewhat higher wages and employment rates,” he added, meaning that by their very presence, “immigration has raised productivity.”
The contention that migrants act as a drain on resources, drawing more from the system than they contribute is false, he said. For confirmation of this, said Portes, look at the most multi-cultural area of Britain—London—and the vibrancy of its economy. In contrast, said Portes, some of the worst social conditions in Britain could be found in the most mono-cultural areas.
Stuart Wheeler, Treasurer of Ukip, conceded Portes’s point that immigration was a benefit for businesses, but suggested that immigrants tended to depress wage levels. “We think we should not allow them in because we have a lot of unemployed people and our duty is more towards our own people than it is towards our own businesses,” said Wheeler. He went on to stress that Ukip’s immigration policy was shaped by the notion of putting the interests of those at the “bottom of the scale,” before immigrants, even if those immigrants happened to be more efficient than British workers.
Vicky Pryce, the economist, also challenged Portes’s assumption that immigration had brought only benefits to the economy. Immigration has encouraged companies to hire cheaper staff rather than invest. “I would suggest that it has contributed to low productivity level that we have seen since the recession,” she said, which in turn has exerted downward pressure on wages.
Bronwen Maddox, the Editor of Prospect and chair of the event, said that immigration regularly came top of polls of what most worried people about Britain, especially the effect that it is having on schools, hospitals and other services. This was in sharp contrast to Portes’s opening positive economic analysis—there was a gulf between the politics and the economics.
Peter Kellner, President of YouGov the pollster, placed the blame for this dissonance on “woeful leadership from the press and indeed from the political parties.” He said “Iain Duncan Smith recently did an interview in the Sunday Times in which he talked about concern about the welfare plans for EU immigrants,” and that “when officials produced an answer showing that that his concern was simply not justified,” he failed to acknowledge the fact publicly.
Representatives of the Danish, Swedish and Irish embassies spoke, taking turns to make clear their fascination with the British debate on immigration and to set out how much it differed from the equivalent conversation in their own countries.
Gus O’Donnell, was Cabinet Secretary during Tony Blair’s Labour government, a period in which Britain’s immigration policy was dramatically liberalised. He saw British unease about immigration as a proxy for other, deeper social concerns. It was, he said, “a symbol of something wider and bigger about dishonest politicians, Britain changing for the worse, a feeling of insecurity.” O’Donnell said that the politics of immigration threw up two questions: “One is ‘what is the right policy?’ economically, socially, or whatever; and the other is how do we address the underlying concerns that express themselves through the label on immigration?”
William Bain, Labour MP for Glasgow North East, offered a corrective to the assumption that immigration itself was not the problem, assessing the previous Labour government’s record, saying: “With respect to Gus I think there are probably three areas where the previous government did get this wrong.” The first was that “there could have been more attention paid to the potential for companies to use European rules to undercut particularly low paid workers through agencies.”
“The second point,” said Bain, “is that when we were opening up EU migration we should have looked at the impact on social housing.” He cited research by UCL showing “that in terms of the migrants who arrived after 2000 there was greater pressure placed on social housing by that particular cohort.”
“The third thing,” said Bain “is that we should have looked more at the impact on the public and I think the failure to do those three things has added to some of these underlying issues where people have blamed immigration for this lack of sense of belonging which traditionally people had.”
“It doesn’t really matter why people care, I think we should take notice of what people actually want,” said Stuart Wheeler, adding that “I understand that people in this country don’t want more immigration.” Though he accepted that refugees and skilled workers were welcome to come to Britain, he said that “if we don’t need their skills then they can’t.”
When asked what good Ukip MEPs could do if they won many seats in the European Parliament in the May elections, he replied “I hope we do well in the European elections not because of what good we can do in the European Parliament, which I don’t think does any good anyway,” a comment that drew some laughter. He stressed that the principle aim of Ukip at the elections was to “put pressure on the Coalition and indeed the Labour party as well to make further concessions,” over their willingness to accept a referendum on membership of the EU.
Vicky Pryce, the economist, reminded the room that Britain’s ability to trade with Europe would be substantially curtailed if it tried to re-draw its membership of the EU. The assumption “that we can still leave Europe and the EU but still have the type of relationship that Switzerland, Norway and others have,” is wrong. “We would be taking a huge risk that all the benefits of trade would disappear,” warned Pryce.
The debate made clear the substantial tension between the pragmatic economic view of immigration, which sees it as a benefit, and the popular perception that it is a threat to national identity and a drain on resources. Economists such as Portes will have to shout louder if their analysis is to alter the current popular view.