What is the problem?


1. Immigration is a natural part of an open economy and society and at Migration Watch UK we welcome it. The problem is the current scale of immigration, nearly half of it now from the EU, which is simply unsustainable.

2. Opponents of tighter immigration control try to present the debate as being either ‘for’ or ‘against’ migration. This is obviously wrong. All countries have border controls and policies about who to admit and who to turn away. The relevant policy questions are around who and how many people are good for the UK. Immigration policy, just like any other policy area, should be managed in the best interests of the UK.

3. We recognise that most migrants come here for a very understandable reason, to try to better their lives, and that many make a positive contribution to our communities and to society. The issue is the scale that immigration has now reached with serious consequences for the size of our population and for the ability of our public services to cope.

The Scale of Immigration

4. High levels of net migration to the UK are a relatively recent phenomenon. The UK has always experienced periods of immigration (see here) but never on remotely the current scale.

5. In 1997 net migration (the number of people coming to the UK minus the number leaving) was just 47,000. In the years that followed it rose to well over 200,000 and peaked at 320,000 in 2005. Under the last Labour government (1997-2010) an extra 3.6 million foreign migrants arrived, while one million British citizens left (see here).

Figure 1.

6. The coalition government elected in 2010 pledged to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’. However, despite some reduction in migration from outside the European Union, overall net migration rose to a third of a million. (see here). This is largely because net migration from the EU doubled over the last Parliament due to the ongoing disparity in wealth between Eastern Europe and the UK together with the Eurozone crisis affecting Southern Europe. (See here) Net migration from Europe is now almost equal to that from outside the EU. This no doubt played an important role in the decision taken by the British people to leave the European Union.

7. Under the current Conservative government net migration now stands at an estimated 335,000 for the year ending June 2016 (see here).

Why is the current level of immigration a problem?

8. High net migration has resulted in rapid population growth. The UK population currently stands at around 65 million. The Office of National Statistics ‘high’ migration scenario, which assumes net migration of 265,000, projects that the UK population will now increase by around 500,000 a year - the equivalent to a new city the size of Liverpool every year. This is unsustainable. It would result in the population growing by nearly eight million over the next fifteen years bringing it to 73 million. The ONS state that around 75% of this increase will be down to future migrants and their children. The remaining population growth will come from the UK’s existing population, including births to immigrants already here (see here). Population growth would not stop there. It would continue to soar towards 80 million in 25 years and keep going upwards.

Figure 2.

9. The UK (and especially England) is already densely populated by international standards and has a chronic shortage of housing. England is twice as crowded as Germany and nearly four times as crowded as France.

10. To cope with this population increase huge amounts will have to be spent on the expansion of school places, roads, rail, health and other infrastructure. This is at a time when the government is running a budget deficit and aims to reduce public spending over the long term.

Little economic benefit for the existing population and harmful for the worse off

11. Increased migration will not generate the extra tax revenue needed to pay for such infrastructure expansion. The only major inquiry ever conducted in the UK into the economic impact of immigration was carried out by the Select Committee on Economic Affairs of the House of Lords in 2007/08. In April 2008 they reported that “The overall fiscal impact of immigration is likely to be small, though this masks significant variations across different immigrant groups." (See here) These findings have been endorsed by the OECD which found in its annual report that "estimates of the fiscal impact of immigration vary, although in most countries it tends to be small in terms of GDP and is around zero on average across OECD countries."" (see here).

12. The UK economy is now in a period of economic growth that was forecast by the Office of Budget Responsibility in 2015 to continue over the next few years. Mass immigration contributes to this growth, simply because more people make for a larger economy. This is why it is common to hear the argument that immigration is good for the economy because it increases GDP. However, it does not significantly increase GDP per head so does not necessarily make for a better economy. The most recent OBR report assumed that current high levels of net migration would continue and that this additional inflow would add no more than a tenth of one per cent to GDP per head of the population. The House of Lords report previously referred to stated that "We have found no evidence for the argument, made by the government, business and many others, that net immigration - immigration minus emigration - generates significant economic benefits for the existing UK population." (see here).

13. The growing economy is creating more employment opportunities and the numbers of both UK born and migrants in employment are growing but the large pool of labour from abroad has been associated with continued low growth in earnings as employers have not had to offer higher wages (see here). Mass immigration is likely to be holding back wages for those in direct competition for work, which is often those who are already low paid – both British born and previous migrants alike. A study conducted by the Bank of England recently concluded that ‘the immigrant-native ratio has a significant small impact on the average occupational wage rates of that region’ and that the biggest impacts were observed in the semi and unskilled services sector (see here).

Public Opinion

14. Public opinion is clear. A large majority (76%) of the public want to see immigration reduced (see here). That includes voters of all ethnicities (see here). This is hardly surprising as we all share the same concerns about housing, schools and the health service.


15. The greater the number of new arrivals, the harder it is for everyone to become fully integrated in British society. Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, warned back in 2005 that the UK was “sleep walking into segregation”. Reasonable levels of migration are key to achieving strengthened community relations. Our paper “What can be done” (see here) explains how net migration can be bought down to lower levels.

Updated 12th December 2016

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