The government need to be extremely careful how they respond to the report of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published on Tuesday. As one might expect, it addresses immigration from a strictly economic, even academic, point of view. However, it is also tone deaf to the wider concerns of the public, not about the technicalities of economists, but about a deeply held concern that the scale of immigration has got out of hand and is changing the whole scale and nature of our society at an unacceptable pace.
The MAC seem to have lost sight of the bigger picture. They acknowledge that nearly two-thirds of the public want immigration reduced, only in effect to ignore these concerns in drawing up their proposals. The concerns are well founded. For the last fifteen years, immigration has been adding one million to our population every three years. This is equivalent to a city the size of Birmingham. Who really wants to see this, apart from those employers who are focused only on profits or some politicians who would like to import a new pool of voters? Three-quarters of the public already think that the UK is crowded. Indeed, England – the destination of 90 per cent of immigrants – is one of the most densely populated nations in Europe.
The committee mention pressure on social housing and recognise that indigenous British people are waiting longer than they otherwise would. However, there is no reference even to the government’s own projections that we will have to build nearly 300 homes every day for the indefinite future just to house new migrants. You only have to drive around the countryside and see the housing estates springing up everywhere to realise that something is going on. What the public does not realise is that half of the demand is a result of immigration. As for house prices, the government revealed earlier this year that the growth of the non-UK-born population had led to a 21 per cent increase in England between 1991 and 2016.
This situation just cannot be allowed to continue, whatever the economic arguments. We cannot have such changes to the scale and nature of our society without public consent, indeed in the teeth of clear public wishes to the contrary.
The immigration lobby make much of the net contribution of immigrants to the Exchequer. However the committee, in one of their more useful paragraphs, point out that the net contribution in the last financial year of £4.7billion works out at £1.70 per week per head of the UK-born population. It follows that, from a fiscal point of view there is, as the chairman of the MAC Professor Alan Manning put it, little effect and little benefit. Even more strikingly, the net contribution from the one and a half million working-age Eastern Europeans in the UK comes out at little over ten pence per head averaged across the adult UK population. In other words, peanuts, and certainly not worth the strains associated with hugely increased congestion on our roads, trains, buses and in hospitals and schools (not to mention integration and cohesion).
So what are the committee recommending for future policy? Firstly, they recommend that there should no longer be a route for the unskilled. It is hard to argue with that. However, they then recommend that the present route for highly skilled workers should be widened to the medium skilled.
They go on to suggest that this route should be open to the whole world. At one level this is understandable, since it is difficult to justify different treatment for EU and non-EU migrants after we have left the EU. But it does enormously widen the pool of potential applicants.
The third major recommendation is that there should be no cap on the number of work permits issued to this new category of applicants. This leaves a serious risk that these reforms could trigger a wave of applications from employers seeking to bring in workers from all over the world. One thing that is clear from the responses to the committee’s report is that practically every industry in Britain believe they are a special case in their need for immigrant labour. The minimum salary of £30,000 a year might have some restraining effect but salary levels are easily fiddled.
It is also concerning that the committee have recommended abolishing the present key requirement for an employer to check whether there is a suitable UK applicant before hiring someone from abroad. Our research has found that there are four million people who would like to work or would like more working hours than they currently have. It would be a major error for the government to abolish protections for UK applicants in this way.
The combination of the widening of the skill level, opening the route to the whole world, removal of safeguards for UK workers and abolition of the cap on highly-skilled work permits may well be seen in the future as a very serious mistake. We have the precedent of New Labour who deliberately eased the immigration system in 1997, some say for political reasons, only to find that net migration trebled in the space of a couple of years.
We could yet see something similar if these proposals are introduced. What is more, this would take place against the background of a huge popular vote to leave the EU driven, to a significant extent, by a desire to reduce immigration.
If the outcome of this government’s stewardship were to produce a very difficult exit from the EU combined with a massive increase in immigration, the Conservatives could say goodbye to office for many years to come.