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…