The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) yesterday released a comprehensive and thoughtful document entitled ‘Migrants in Low Skilled Work: The Growth of EU and non-EU Labour in Low-Skilled Jobs and its Impact on the UK’. The document, which stretched to almost 350 pages, examined the impacts of immigration on the UK with reference to both skilled and low skilled migration. The MAC combined research, visits to areas in the UK with high migrant shares or rapid growth, and evidence submitted by 66 stakeholders including Migration Watch UK.
The MAC is an independent body that advises the government on migration issues and its work is exhaustive and carefully considered. Certain aspects covered in this latest report such as the labour market and fiscal impacts of migration are well trodden-ground in academic circles and have been discussed and argued over by people of various degrees of neutrality. Other areas such as the social impacts have received far less attention over the years.
The technique of the MAC to summarise all the available literature and then reach a nuanced conclusion rather lends itself to contradictory newspaper headlines and articles. This blog post will take the contrasting claims of different newspapers, whether in the headline or the main body of the article and examine what the MAC actually said.
The Telegraph opened its online article “Britain 'struggling to cope' with immigration, says official report” with the sentence ‘Parts of Britain are "struggling to cope" with high levels of immigration that have put huge pressures on public services such as the NHS, schools and transport, the Government's official advisers have said’ yet the Independent claimed in its online article ‘Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers’ adding that the MAC ‘also concluded that immigration had made little difference to crime, housing, hospitals, schools or welfare payments. These two newspaper articles are in complete contrast with one another; so which is right?
Overall the MAC concludes that migrants do not place any disproportionate burden on public services such as health, education, transport or housing. This means that at an individual level they use public services to the same extent that the local population do. However this is not to say that migrants have made no difference to housing, hospitals or schools as the Independent article suggests, because the migrant-driven growth in population increases the overall burden. The MAC in fact concludes that there has been significant pressure placed on maternity units due to migration, and that churn during the school year as a result of migration levels places pressure on the education system. The MAC also notes transport services congestion and pressure placed on the privately rented housing market at the local level as a result of immigration. These impacts are clearly marked under ‘Costs’ in a summary of the costs and benefits of migration on page 9.
In terms of the impact on welfare payments the MAC find that migrants are less likely to be on out-of-work benefits however are more likely to be claiming in-work benefits as a result of their being more likely to be in low paid work, attracting tax credits. To suggest that there has been no impact on welfare payments is therefore disingenuous. On the issue of crime the MAC find no evidence of differing outcomes in terms of crime for UK born and non-UK born and that any greater criminality is largely explained by the age profile of migrants (being younger than the general population) and crime being largely committed by young people. Looking at the Telegraph article, the report itself does not say that Britain is ‘struggling to cope’ as is quoted in the headline but a spokesman for the MAC said: “The arrival of one million migrants in low-skilled jobs during the last 10 years has left local authorities struggling to cope with rapid population change.” The headline on the Reuters news agency sums this up when it claimed ‘Parts of Britain struggling with immigration, say government advisors.’
Employment and Wages
‘Mass immigration to parts of Britain has driven down wages of the poor and put pressure on services, official report finds’ (Mail Online, 8th July 2014)
‘Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers’ (Independent Online, 8th July 2014)
To the layperson these two headlines may seem contradictory but in fact they are talking about two different impacts – the Mail Online correctly asserts that there has been a negative impact on the wages of those at the lower end of the pay scale (while having a positive impact, i.e., driving up the wages of those at the high end of the pay scale). Meanwhile the Independent’s claim that immigration has not harmed employment refers to whether or not immigration has an impact on employment rates of natives. The data here is not conclusive with some studies finding that there is no statistically significant evidence of an association between immigration and employment of natives (essentially immigration being associated with fewer natives in the labour market) and some studies finding that there is for non-EU migrants but not for EU migrants. But what does this mean?
The term statistical significance is a term which means that a finding is not an outlier or a chance result. Studies that do not find a statistically significant association between employment and migration do not, however, mean that there is no association. Professor Rowthorn, Emeritus Professor of Economics, at Cambridge University summed it up nicely in his evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs when he said that finding effects that are statistically insignificant “does not mean that they are ‘small’…It simply means that there is too much noise in the system to estimate them accurately.” It is also the case that the body of academic research uses data that largely precedes the steep increases in migration from 2004 onwards.
Skills, Education and Attitude
Much was made in the media about the impact of immigration on the employment chances of young people. The Telegraph article led with the failure of the education system to prepare young people for the world of work (‘Schools fail pupils for the world of work, say immigration advisers’) whereas a Guardian article focused on the lack of evidence that there is an association between EU migration and youth employment (‘EU migrants 'not hitting UK school-leavers' job prospects')’. Both of these articles are correct. Youth unemployment is a complex phenomenon in the UK and its causes are varied. The MAC report highlighted the association between unemployment and poor literacy and numeracy skills and the poor performance of young people in England in an OECD study of literacy and numeracy across 24 participating countries. The report also highlighted a deficiency in softer skills such as attitude and motivation in native young people as highlighted by the Telegraph article. The Times headline ‘Migrants win 1m jobs with can-do attitude’ referenced the ‘perceived superiority in their [migrant workers] work ethic and general employability skills’ (MAC, p.101). The Daily Mail article highlights in its headline the relationship between the two ‘Firms forced to take on migrants because school leavers don’t even have basic skills’ This suggests that immigration does impact on young people but does not necessarily say that there is a causal relationship between levels of migration and employment chances. Were there not a constant stream of EU workers to the UK, employers might put greater pressure on the schools system to get young people work-ready. The MAC report highlights Newham, London as a place where retail and hospitality roles were previously filled by school leavers but are now filled by EU migrants. (p.98)Were EU migrants not able to fill these roles employers would have to train up the workforce themselves or press the government to raise standards – as it is now there is little incentive to do either.
The MAC report is a thorough analysis of the impacts of migration and it cannot be reduced to a few headlines either way – perhaps unsurprisingly it finds costs and benefits to immigration. Immigration can be good for employers and for the labour market generally so long as the skills migrants bring complement those of the existing labour force. Yet immigration can also be bad for local workers if they find that a single migrant worker with no family to support is willing to do their job for less money. Immigration also brings with it cultural benefits, but too much can cause tension. The sensible debate on immigration is about what level of immigration is right for Britain and this report demonstrates that there are problems. Rather than stick a plaster on or throw money at the problems that high levels of net migration have created, why not bring that level down, just as the public want. The present open door to migration from the EU means that migrants can choose to come to the UK on the basis of what they can gain rather than what they can contribute. It must be right for the UK to be able to distinguish between those who are likely to benefit the country and those who are not.
 Reuters, ‘Parts of Britain struggling with immigration, say government advisers’, 8th July 2014, URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/08/britain-eu-migration-idUSL6N0PJ3F020140708
 House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs, The Economic Impact of Immigration, 1st Report of Session 2007-8, Volume I: Report, April 2008, URL: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldselect/ldeconaf/82/82.pdf