"Net Migration Down by a Third” was the headline accompanying the news that the number of people coming into the UK last year reduced by 80,000. The headline typifies the negative tone of the debate on immigration in Britain today.
The public default position from all of the mainstream parties is that immigration needs to be cut. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to reduce net migration from the 100,000s to the 10,000s at the last election.
The Labour Party admits it made mistakes on immigration in the past but will not make a positive argument in favour of migrants. The Liberal Democrats too stress immigration controls. Then there is UKIP, which argues that Britain has lost control of its borders due to EU regulations. So if Britain wants to get back control of immigration it must leave the EU.
As a result of the wholly negative discourse dangerous decisions are being made that threaten to further derail the British economy. The reality is that if Britain wants to remain the fifth largest economy in the world it probably needs all the migrants that it can get.
The population of the UK today is ageing, with people living longer. At the same time fertility rates are falling. Not enough children are being born to replace the current population. Today there are three people of working age for every one over 65, by 2060 the ratio is expected to change to 1:1.
Academic David Blake estimates that for the state pension to remain viable, there need to be 500,000 immigrant workers coming to the UK each year.
“If the next generation is smaller in number than the current generation, the current generation will have some stark choices: it will have to accept a cut in its pension, or save more while in work or work longer and retire later or accept more immigration,” said Rahila Gupta, author of Enslaved.
A further connection between migrants and the elderly is that the former also fill many of the skill gaps required to service an ageing population. So there is much migrant labour working in the NHS, the care sector and social services. Highly skilled migrants fill a gap in the UK economy.
Migration is good for the economy. The government's own figures show, that net migration of 250,000 per year boosts the annual GDP by 0.5% (source: Office for Budget Responsibility). This growth means more jobs, higher tax revenues, more funding for schools and hospitals and a lower deficit.
Despite the populist hysteria about migrants coming here for benefits, the facts tell another story.
The business leaders group Business for New Europe (BNE) found that only 1% of Polish migrants claim income support compared to 4% of the native-born British population. 8% of Polish migrants live in social housing compared to 17% of native born British citizens.
“EU law does not currently give all EU citizens the unconditional right to live freely or claim benefits in the UK. After three months, European citizens have to prove they can support themselves, are in work or are looking for work with a real chance of getting it,” said a spokesperson for BNE.
Migrants also tend to be younger, contributing more in tax revenue than they consume in public services and the majority leave before they get older when they would become more reliant on public services.
A study by University College London in 2009 that looked at the fiscal impact of the migration of recent eastern European migration found that migrants contributed 37% more in taxes than the cost of the public services they consumed.
In recent years, the largest single group of migrants coming to the UK from outside Europe has been international students. A research report for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that from 2011 the estimated the value to the UK economy of international students at over £14 billion per year.
Further education is a booming service industry but threatens to be wrecked by the policies predicated on the need to cut migrant numbers now being slavishely pursued by government.
A less trumpeted fact concerning the recent drop in migrant numbers was that 56,000 of those who did not come here were students, a cost in terms of loss to the economy of some £725 million.
The student intake from India has particularly reduced, with negative messages getting back to that country. There has been a 24% drop in the number of students coming from India in the past year, a loss of £169 million to the British economy, according to the Migration Matters Trust.
The clumsy intervention last year by the UK Borders Agency that removed the licence from the London Metropolitan University to teach and recruit students from beyond the EU no doubt did much to contribute to this negative perception abroad.
One concern has been the undercutting of rates of pay and conditions due to the arrival of migrant workers. If so it were so then at the lowest level those who are responsible for enforcing the minimum wage have something to answer for.
“HMRC must do more to enforce minimum wage requirements to protect British workers. The courts are empowered to prosecute those in breach of the National Minimum Wage Act 2008,” said a spokesperson for the BNE.
Remarkably, there has been just one prosecution for breach of the national minimum wage in the period 2011-2013. The failure to effectively regulate is evident by the fact that between 9% and 13% of direct care workers are currently paid at levels below the requirement. The introduction of the living wage would also help stop undercutting.
So it can be seen there is a very positive story to be told about immigration, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. What is more if people in this country want to continue to prosper then more migrants need to be attracted to these shores, not driven away amid a storm of xenophobic vitriol.