Britain has a long and proud tradition of absorbing migrants from other countries and - on the whole - an enviable reputation in making them welcome, integrating them into British society, and being tolerant of people who live their lives in ways which are not exactly the same as those of indigenous stock. This is surely a hugely important mark of a civilised society and one which we should do everything we can to retain. All reasonable people recognise that, once people from abroad have settled in the UK, far the best approach is sensitive integration. No other policy has any chance of working successfully. It is also clearly the case that Britain is a very attractive destination for international migrants. Our relatively high standard of living, well organised welfare systems, accommodating labour markets and the international importance of the English language, all make Britain a natural choice for people who want to improve their lot in a new country. Britain is always, therefore, going to have a substantial immigrant community and we need to have an immigration policy which reflects this vital reality. The key policy question is about numbers. It is about how much immigration, especially of those who want to come here for economic reasons, is feasible before the benefits start to be outweighed by the problems brought in train. It is in this respect that EU policy on internal migration, especially in relation to the Accession Countries, is crucial.
Until about ten years ago, although there were quite substantial movements in and out of the country, there was little net gain or loss of population in Britain as a result of migration. Both within the EU and outside it, inflows and outflows broadly matched each other, both in terms of numbers and demography. While there were always strains in areas such as inner London, where poor immigrants tended to cluster, taking the nation as a whole, the position was generally manageable. There were also well celebrated benefits as cultural norms in Britain became more cosmopolitan and many peoples’ opportunities for travel and experiencing different cultures widened. Recently, however, the situation has changed. There are now considerably more immigrants than emigrants, with net immigration, mostly of relatively poor people, running at about 185,000 per annum. Hardly surprisingly, in these circumstances, the impact of large scale migration to this country now has much greater salience than it did a decade ago.
There is no doubt at all about who are the primary beneficiaries of migration. It is the migrants themselves, though by no means always, at least to the same degree if at all, their partners and families. The rich also tend to be major beneficiaries in countries with high living standards into which poor people migrate. Migrants provide a rich vein of cheap labour, from which the wealthiest sections of the population gain most. Increased competition for employment produces large numbers of people willing to work for long hours at low wages as everything from au pairs, chauffeurs and gardeners to waiters, cleaners and hotel staff. Employers generally gain too, as an expanding labour force with relatively large numbers with low income expectations allow them to bid down labour costs. Those who lose out are those who have to compete with immigrants in the labour market, who tend to be those already on relatively low wages and salaries. Trade unions surely rightly say that migrants need protection as much - if not more - than indigenous labour. The same unions also need to be aware that the labour force as a whole, and especially the more vulnerable sections of it, are threatened en masse with a declining share of total wages, if there are enough people in the labour market prepared to work for very low wages.
It is often claimed that large scale immigration improves economic performance. It is true that heavy competition in the labour market may hold down wage increases, although this is of course generally to the disbenefit of poorer people, whose pay levels are correspondingly depressed. It is also true that with a growing population, the national income is likely to grow faster. This is an illusionary gain for the population as a whole, however, for whom what counts is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head - in other words living standards - and not GDP as a whole. We are also sometimes told that immigration is necessary to provide people to do jobs which the indigenous population are not prepared to undertake. This is another illusion. The issue here is simply the wages to be paid. Any job vacancy can be filled if the wages are adequate. Finally, it is claimed that immigrants tend to be young and fit and therefore low claimants on the welfare state. This may be true for a while but they too will grow old and they too will want to have their families with them before long.
There are other important negative impacts from rapidly increasing populations. Countries with high living standards depend on there being an adequate stock of both social and industrial capital assets - housing, roads, schools and community and leisure facilities on the one hand, and factories, offices and all the plant, machinery and equipment required for their operation on the other. If the population increases, these capital assets need to be expanded pro rata. There is no automatic way in which this happens and in a number of key respects it is very clear that a severe process of dilution is taking place. There is now a very serious shortage of social housing in Britain. Our levels of investment in industry are depressingly low. There are increasing pressures on the environment, especially in the South East of the country, as infrastructure resources of all kinds run into short supply, from adequate water to there being sufficient building land not in flood plains, to accommodate an expanding population.
The result of all these trends is that there is a marked tendency for large scale immigration of relatively poor people into rich countries to make the distribution of wealth and income significantly more unequal. Along with these changes go widening life chances in all other respects - education, health, longevity, the incidence of crime and much else. Mature and broadly liberal societies such as we have in Britain have a fair measure of tolerance to trends of this sort becoming increasingly manifest, but we need to be very careful that we do not take for granted that the bounds of tolerance will not be stretched too far. There are also very troubling questions raised for those who believe that the good society is one where the divisions between the rich and the poor are kept to a reasonable minimum. Not many of us want to live in a society where the difference in standards of living and life styles between those who are well off and those whose living standards are lower are so wide that gulfs of incomprehension and lack of understanding become widespread.
There are equally important issues for the countries from which poor migrants come. Such countries tend to be heavy losers from emigration if those who leave are the most enterprising and those for whom heavy social investments have been made in their education. These are just the sort of people who are needed to raise living standards locally rather than somewhere else in a distant land. Remittances sent back may help, but these have nothing like the same positive impact as does the retention of enterprising people who are then available both to help to build the local economy and to contribute to the wider social welfare of the countries where they were born and raised.
All these considerations show that, while immigration on a relatively small scale is both manageable, unavoidable and generally desirable, encouraging it to do so on a much larger scale is fraught with problems. It is here that our membership of the EU is crucial. The EU stands for the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services but there are huge differences in the benefit to be secured by these differing objectives. In particular, it has never been clear that the free movement of labour, on the scale which was inevitable when the boundaries of the EU were extended eastwards, was going to be beneficial to either the new or the older Member States in the EU. The very steep economic gradient between the economic conditions in the relatively poor Accession Countries and the much richer EU founder Member States, was bound to produce pressures for mass migration. These were grossly underestimated by the UK government, which expected the net inflow of migrants to be about 13,000 a year while the actual figure turned out to be closer to 300,000 per annum. Reacting to this miscalculation, it has recently been decided to restrict immigration temporarily from Rumania and Bulgaria. Even so, the impact of the large scale migration which has already taken place - with more to come even with the new curbs in place - has had large scale negative effects, which are likely to become more acute as more migration takes place. Existing EU rules ensure that there is only a limited amount that the UK can do to contain the pressures which arise, and in a few years’ time, all restrictive controls will be illegal. With most benefits from EU induced migration going to the well off, this is not going to be an easy battle to fight. It is not the rich and powerful who are stuck in housing waiting lists which are not moving, who are having their wages eroded away or who are losing their jobs. It is the poor and vulnerable who are the ones who suffer most. Up to now, they have mostly accepted their lot with fortitude and tolerance. It is vitally important to us all, however, that the pressures to which they are subjected do not become unacceptably high. The bonds which hold society together are stronger in Britain than in many other places, but they need to be cherished more carefully than they are at the moment, not fractured by dogmatic adherence to policies on the free movement of labour which are becoming increasingly inappropriate.
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