How to tackle immigration

With rising concern over immigration to the UK, it is important to examine its sources – and how we can limit them

By Sir Andrew Green
Chairman of Migration Watch UK
The Guardian, London, 18 January, 2010

Yesterday's Observer editorial was right to call for an honest debate on immigration. This surely requires a calm look at the sources of immigration and the prospects for limiting them.

The broad political question is whether immigration as a whole should be reduced so as to constrain what would otherwise be a considerable and continuing increase in our population. Labour are still in denial about their official population projections. The Lib Dems thunder about the need for "controls" but are totally silent about any kind of limit. The Tories are beginning to outline a policy of overall limitation, but their draft manifesto on the subject is still awaited. Alan Travis, writing earlier last week, had an easy target in pointing to the lack of detail in Conservative immigration policy. However, we should not imagine that this means that the task of controlling immigration is either impossible or unnecessary.

Take first the context of population. There is no question of the official population projections being based on "will-o'-the-wisp calculations". The record of the ONS is much better than the Met Office. Over the past 50 years, their projections at the 20-year range have been accurate to about 2.5%. Furthermore, in a recent parliamentary answer, they have confirmed that most of last year's fall in immigration has already been factored in to the latest projections.

Projections depend, of course, on what assumptions are made and cannot take account of future changes in government policy, but what they do show is what is very likely to happen in the absence of such policy changes. In this context it is important to realise that the recent fall in immigration is not, to any significant extent, a result of government policy. Of last year's drop of 80,000 in net foreign immigration nearly 70,000 was due to larger numbers of east Europeans going home; government policy was irrelevant to this.

Nor it is correct to say that the birth rate is more crucial than net migration in determining population growth. If you take account of the children of future immigrants, then immigration accounts for 68% of population growth. The public are increasingly conscious of this – which is why 85% express concern that our population is projected to hit 70 million in 2029.

Can net immigration, the prime cause of population growth, be reduced to the level of about 40,000 a year, which will be necessary to avoid our population reaching 70 million?

The first thing is to exclude asylum from this discussion. Asylum seekers account for only 10% of net foreign immigration and only one-third of those are granted protection. The rest face the quite different problem of removal.

Second, we need to understand that membership of the European Union does not, of itself, prevent much more effective immigration control. The net inflow from the EU15 has averaged only 22,000 over the last ten years. As for the new members in eastern Europe, their net inflow is already is declining rapidly as more people go home, thus counterbalancing new arrivals. The ONS principal projection assumes that they will come into balance in the course of the next six years.

The big numbers come from students. Nearly 250,000 have been admitted from outside the EU every year in recent years. Given that there are still no checks on their departure, this must account for significant numbers of those staying on. An effective system would ensure that they left unless they entered a genuine marriage with a British citizen or obtained a longer-term work permit.

The next biggest category is spouses and fiancees. They have averaged about 40,000 per year in the last five years. This number could be reduced if sham marriages and forced marriages were strongly discouraged but there can, obviously, be no question of interfering with genuine marriages by British citizens.

This leaves the last category, economic migration by work permit. The present government has trebled the number of work permits to about 120,000 per year, while the Conservative party speaks of cutting them sharply. The solution is, surely, the government's recent proposal for a second points-based system to decide which economic migrants should be allowed to settle indefinitely, thus adding to our population. A cap at that point could be as low as 20,000.

Of course the overall net migration figure depends on how many British citizens emigrate. In the last five years that has averaged about 100,000. This means that we need to get net immigration down to about 140,000 if the overall net figure is to be of the order of 40,000. The categories outlined above come to about 90,000, to which might be added 20,000 for net arrivals from eastern Europe over each of the next few years.

There are other, relatively minor, categories to consider, but a calm analysis of the sources of immigration would lead to a more measured and useful debate. The foregoing should illustrate that the task is by no means impossible. It is certainly necessary if justified and widespread public concern is to be addressed.

© Copyright of Sir Andrew Green

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