With not just tabloids like the Daily Mail but even government Ministers emphasising the potential downsides of the UK's recent migration experience, a few commentators have sought to present more thoughtful accounts. Here are three:
David Smith of the Sunday Times wrote on 28 October that Migrants ease the inflation pressure. he does a good job summarising submissions to the House of Lords economic affairs committee investigation into the economic impact of immigration:
There are contributions from business, with the Institute of Directors saying that three-quarters of its members believe that foreign-born workers make a big positive contribution to the economy and, more controversially, that they “significantly outperform the existing workforce across a whole range of measures, including productivity, education and skills, work ethic, reliability and the amount of sick leave”.
The City of London Corporation waxes lyrical about the historic contribution of immigrants, noting that “City street names such as Lombard Street date back to the reign of King Edward I, when land was given to goldsmiths from the Lombardy region in Italy”. More recently there has been a significant City influx from the Continent and America and the corporation notes that London’s overall foreign-born population rose from 1.17m to 2.23m between 1986 and 2006.
J Sainsbury says it has used migrant labour to fill “pressing gaps in both skilled and unskilled areas” and praises the work ethic of such staff.
This kind of thing would be a red rag to the unions, it might be thought. But the Trades Union Congress, in its submission, is also strongly supportive.
“The overall economic impact of immigration is limited but positive,” it says. “Migrant workers contribute more in taxes than they receive in services, and migration probably leads to slightly higher levels of employment and wages for native workers. Migration may possibly be linked to an increase in wage inequality in this country, but the evidence is not conclusive.”
The government’s take on the economic impact of immigration is also reassuring. It believes that in the short term the impact of immigration on the public finances is positive, though the last official study was some years ago. It concluded that migrants paid £2.5 billion more in taxes than they took out in benefits and the use of public services. This net gain to the exchequer is likely to have grown, the government suggests.
The long-term impact of migrants is more difficult to assess, it accepts. An American study pointed to a large overall positive impact but any conclusion for Britain is sensitive to the number of dependants each migrant has, and whether they remain in Britain until retirement. As it is, the effect of migration will be to ameliorate the consequences of Britain’s ageing population.
The dependency ratio – the ratio of dependants to working-age people – is 61% and will rise to 74% over the next 50 years. With zero net immigration it would increase to 82%.
The arrival of migrant workers has meant employers have not had to outbid each other for scarce labour. This has helped the Bank of England by delivering lower wage rises for a given rate of economic growth than would otherwise have been the case. Interest rates have thus been lower in recent years than they might have been.
The IPPR's Danny Sriskandarajah explains in the Financial Times why limiting immigration is bad for Britain. He points out how difficult it would be to 'control' migration, and argues that work permit system is likely to prove more responsive than a points-based system.
In their rush to control immigration, both parties are also suggesting a departure from the market-based, employer-led system of allocating work permits that has served the UK economy so well over recent decades. ..the number of work permits issued each year has broadly been in keeping with economic and labour market conditions. An individual-led, points-based system, in which someone need not have a job offer in the UK, may not be sufficiently responsive.
Annual limits or sector-based quotas are likely to be even worse. Imagine a desperate would-be employer being told that the new head of mergers and acquisitions or eminent university professor or star footballer cannot take up his or her post until next year because the annual limit has already been exceeded.
Britain’s political leaders either do not realise that migration cannot be cut in the crude ways they say they want to, or they have calculated that political benefit of being tough on immigration from outside Europe is worth the undoubted economic costs this may incur.
Unfortunately, denying UK employers access to the best and brightest workers from across the world may hurt more than they expect and still not stop the inflows that worry the electorate.Indeed, without a long-overdue reality check, Britain may continue to have relatively high levels of immigration but not necessarily the right workers for the right jobs.
I am less hostile to the new points system than Danny, but agree that attempts to curb migration may well backfire.
Finally, Richard Reeves examines the impact of immigration in this week's New Statesman: Why Brits need not apply
Although the figures on immigration are generally treated as "bad news" for the government, the data on migrant employment is in many ways cause for celebration. A standard case against immigration is that foreigners come to the UK to luxuriate on benefits, use the NHS and snag a council flat. But, on the contrary, it seems immigrants come to do an honest day's work.
Certainly, a significant inflow of people puts pressure on public services, especially when the level of immigration is much higher than expected. And some of the indigenous population may see their chances reduced of gaining cer tain goods such as social housing. These are real, political issues. Nonetheless, most economic analy ses show that immigration has a positive economic effect - the latest has estimated a £6bn boost to GDP and it seems certain that recent waves of immigration, dominated by eastern Europeans, especially Poles and Lithuanians, have been even more beneficial.
Reeves also highlights the link between immigration, welfare and employment. So far this has been an under-exxamined issue in the migration debate (though I suspect not for much longer):
The vast majority of the new immigrants - 94 per cent - have no dependents. They are also white, which improves their chances of landing a job (a fact about the British labour market that should cause no pride). And they work hard. Major employers praise the "superior work ethic" of eastern Europeans.
...A harder question is why so few of the jobs that have been created are being taken by any of the five million native Brits currently out of work. They do, after all, have a linguistic edge over the newcomers. It is not as if any of the jobs are advertised with signs saying "Brits Need Not Apply". One explanation is that much of the work, especially in agriculture and construction, is not appealing to the indigenous population. Another is that the new immigrants are making more use of effective "informal" job-search methods - personal contacts and the grapevine - than unemployed Brits, many of whom are cut off entirely from the world of work.
Out-of-work Brits are also, after a decade of economic expansion, increasingly in what policy wonks dub "hard to help" groups: the long-term unemployed; those with caring responsibilities, such as lone parents; and those on incapacity benefits. A single Lithuanian lad can easily pop up to Liverpool to take a job: it is a different matter for a single mother of four.
There are some harder truths. The British benefits system makes relatively few demands on recipients in terms of job search, certainly by comparison to the new "tough love" US welfare system - a gap that David Cameron looks set to exploit. You do not need to be on the far right to see that there is little incentive for indigenous welfare recipients to swap the stability of benefits for the uncertainty of the labour market.
But the link between immigration, welfare and employment cannot be ignored much longer, for there is certainly something tragic in the sight of a British economy creating jobs alongside a British welfare system discouraging British citizens from taking them.