The news that net migration to the UK hit a new record of 606,000 last year has understandably rung alarm bells. As Rakib Ehsan discussed here, there is a broad consensus that such high figures are unsustainable and, in some sense, undesirable. Nonetheless, talk of a immigration ‘crisis’ seems overdone.
First, it is not obvious that the public is as deeply troubled by immigration as many politicians assume. It is true that opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority believes immigration is ‘too high’. Voters typically rank ‘immigration’ in third place in their list of priorities, after the economy and the NHS.
But if you dig a little deeper the picture is more balanced. My hunch is that these concerns are far more about illegal immigration – ‘Stop the Boats’ – rather than the people coming here by legitimate routes.
Consistent with this, many polls also show that more people are positive than negative about the benefits of migration. Indeed, they actually want to see it increased in many sectors and occupations. Borrowing from the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ sketch in ‘Life of Brian’, they are against immigrants ‘apart from doctors, nurses, care home workers, fruit-pickers…’.
What’s more, despite a lot of Remainer nonsense about how Brexit has ‘undermined European values’, the UK public are among the most open and welcoming in the world, let alone Europe. A recent study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London found that between 1981 and 2022, the share of the British public who said they would not like to live next to people of a different race dropped from 10% to just 1%.
And whether you voted Remain or Leave, the fact that so many people still want to come to live, work and or study in ‘Brexit Britain’ is surely something to cheer.
Second, immigration is not ‘out of control’. Again if you dig below the surface, the detail of the latest numbers tell a different story.
Around a third of the net migration of 606,000 was accounted for by a rebound in the number of overseas students coming to the UK after the pandemic. It must be right to include these new arrivals in the headline figures (people still need housing, whatever the reason they are here). But the net figure should automatically fall back as others complete their studies and return home.
Around a fifth of the total was accounted for by humanitarian visa and resettlement schemes, notably people escaping the war in Ukraine and the crackdown in Hong Kong. This should be a one-off. Indeed, many Ukrainians will hopefully be able to return home. In any event, this legal route for migration is still firmly in the government’s control.
This still leaves a large number of ‘economic’ migrants who have come here for work. But even if this is a problem, given the shortage of UK workers, there is already evidence that these inflows are slowing. The main exceptions are some of those very occupations (notably health and social care) where the public is happy for immigration to increase.
In the meantime, more UK citizens are now returning to the labour force (‘economic inactivity’ is now falling again), and potential migrants from countries like Poland are less attracted to the UK (or Germany) as their own economies continue to catch up.
Above all, most economists (at least most of those that I know) agree that the post-Brexit migration system has been a relative success. The end of ‘free movement’ has reduced the UK’s dependency on cheap labour from the EU, while at the same time the more liberal rules for migration from the rest of world have helped fill at least some of the gaps.
Nonetheless, there are still some good reasons to worry. A rapidly growing population means more pressures on infrastructure and on public services in particular. These pressures might only partly be offset by the fact that so many migrants come to work specifically in areas like health and social care.
The biggest pressure is on the housing stock. We should be very wary of putting a precise number on the ‘right’ level of immigration, let alone setting an explicit target. The Treasury’s dismal track record in meeting its own ‘fiscal rules’ is a warning here. But if the number of additional households is outstripping the number of new houses being built, then surely that is a problem.
In short, immigration is not ‘out of control’, and the system is not ‘broken’. However, even the most ardent free-market economist would accept that immigration cannot be a ‘free for all’.
This piece was first published by CapX on 26 May 2023