The future of the left since 1884

A policy neither possible nor desirable

Long before the referendum it has been clear that immigration is Labour’s achilles heel in the Brexit debate, and the strategy of avoiding the issue merely inflamed feelings. The Conservative claims that immigration could or should be reduced dramatically fed...


Long before the referendum it has been clear that immigration is Labour’s achilles heel in the Brexit debate, and the strategy of avoiding the issue merely inflamed feelings. The Conservative claims that immigration could or should be reduced dramatically fed the idea that this was possible and desirable, and made immigration the easy scapegoat for a range of failed policies in other areas. The Labour strategy of avoiding the issue has only served to feed mistrust and confusion, and produced precisely the result we feared. However, there is a perfectly proper, and defensible policy in favour of immigration which we should be putting, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, “control” is an illusion, international evidence is that the tighter the controls, the higher the informal/illegal flows. Such migrants by definition have to work outside the legal economy. They are open to exploitation and abuse, and employers can pay them below minimum wage, introducing unfair competition for jobs. If neighbouring countries decide to reduce cooperation after Brexit, the illegal flows are bound to increase. Furthermore, managing tighter control will be administratively expensive. Our points based system for non-EU immigrants relies on an expensive process of visa applications which must be unrealistic for the much larger flows daily across the channel. How will we distinguish tourists and students from jobseekers at entry ports? Will we have a system of work permits?

Secondly, immigrants are paying for our public services. We don’t have to pay for their education and training, and if they are working legally, they are paying taxes. Over the last decade, EU migrants have paid £2b a year more in taxes than they have taken out in benefits. This may not be very fair, or internationalist, but it is very good for us.

We need immigrants to pay the growing health, care, and pension costs of an ageing population. Over the next 25 years, the population over 75 will double, and one person in twelve will be over 80, but the working age population will rise much more slowly (if immigration remains at the current levels). Instead of 310 people of pensionable age for every thousand working, we will have 370. Ironically, the group who voted most strongly for leave are those most likely to lose from this, as pension funding falls, and health and care services for older people are cut still further. The alternative is that we increase the size of the working population through immigration, or the working population pay higher taxes to pay these costs.

We need immigrant labour to care for an ageing population. Three million people work in health or social care, and one in five of these is an immigrant, rising to one in three among doctors. The Kings Fund predict a need for one million more health and care workers in 10 years’ time to cope with the growing numbers. We have no plans to expand training on this scale (indeed we are in the process of making it more difficult to recruit trainee nurses at the moment), and global competition for health workers is increasing.

We need immigrant labour to meet labour demand. Warwick University and the UK Commission on Employment and Skills predict 13 million job vacancies in the next decade to meet employer demand (in the light of technological change and retiring workers), but only seven million young people will leave school in that time. Later retirement will fill a bit of the gap, but without immigration there is still likely to be a shortfall of some four million.

The problems alleged to be caused by immigration are all failures of government policy. They have cut the resources for enforcing the minimum wage. They have failed to increase housing supply, or to regulate rented accommodation, artificially inflating prices for one, and encouraging a race to the bottom in the latter. In education, the cutting of resources for local government and the privatisation of schools (“academies”) has made it much more difficult to respond to new demands for school places. Changes in the funding of further education have reduced the ability of British young people to acquire the skills and qualifications to compete with much better educated immigrants (62 per cent of EU migrants are graduates). Finally, in 2010 they cancelled the Migration Impacts Fund, created by the last Labour government to fund local authorities for the extra costs arising from sudden influxes of immigrants in particular areas, funded by a levy on visas for migrants from outside the EU (they kept the charges, but closed the fund!)

Advocates of an Australian style “points based” system imply that this would reduce numbers, although the Australian scheme currently admits almost the same proportion of immigrants (0.4 per cent of the population pa). The administrative costs of such a scheme, to produce a result very like the one we have now, would be very substantial.

Reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands is neither possible, nor desirable, as successive Governments have found. It would not have happened even if we had had no European immigration at all. If it could be achieved the consequences would be disastrous, both economically and socially.

Last, but not least, when the rubber boats of refugees beach on the coast of Norfolk or Sussex, which of us is going to push them back out to sea? We can only deal with this issue by working with our friends, we must not make them our enemies!

Image: Hans Splinter


Stephen McNair

Stephen McNair is chair of the scientific advisory board of the European Joint Programming Initiative on Demography, which coordinates the work of national research funders across 14 EU member states.

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