The Oxford Dictionary defines immigration as “the action of coming to live permanently in a foreign country”. This carries neither positive nor negative connotations; it is simply a dispassionate description of the action of relocating. However, in a political sense immigration has become associated with the alleged negative impact of people relocating. We would do well to start any debate by respecting the real meaning of the word.
Far too much of the immigration debate is rhetoric aimed at stoking fears. There is not enough focus on properly assessing the motivations behind immigration or the benefits which come from it. Following recent strong UKIP polling, the three main UK parties have sought to harden their lines. Some of the policies are good, but they are often wrapped up in hostile words which play to concerns rather than the reality.
It is reasonable that we should deem those who come to the country purely to claim benefits to be unfairly using the system. This behaviour should be prevented. However, I think the arguments on this aspect can overstate the problem and there are some hard numbers to back this up. A study by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research found that migrants living in the UK are proportionately less likely to claim benefits than the population as a whole. Any abuse of the benefits system should of course be tackled, but that is a separate matter from immigration, as we also need to prevent wrongful claims from British-born residents.
At this point it is worth thinking about the basic macro-economic model of state funding. Tax raised from productive economic activity is received by the Exchequer and redistributed through public services, including welfare. Interestingly, when considering migration from other European Union countries, it appears from the Department for Work and Pensions’ own estimated figures that only 6.6% of working-age migrants claimed Job Seekers Allowance or similar work-related benefits in 2012. In fact, a study by University College London found that EU migration had resulted in a net benefit to the Exchequer in every year since 2004. Not only are EU migrants paying for their own use of state-run services, they are paying towards services for the rest of us too.
Perhaps the welfare state does enhance the attractiveness of Britain to some extent. But this is not because it offers a lazy option; rather it exists as a safety net so that if the career-building move to the UK goes wrong, then there is a chance to keep food on the table while the next opportunity is pursued. It is part of an overall package, along with a relatively strong and free economy, which makes Britain a good place for people to follow their aspirations. We should remember the greatest story of immigrant success saw people attracted to the United States not by benefits but by free market opportunity.
There seems to be broad acceptance that if highly-skilled people come to the UK to fill much needed roles, they should be welcomed. So the real debate centres on our approach to those who enter the UK without skills, but with a desire to integrate and a strong work ethic. They might, for example, feel that they can access the training they need to pursue a career, and have more job opportunities in the free market society than they may have had in their former country. These people are coming to the UK with a drive to work hard and the benefits if they succeed will not just be personal to them but will be good for all of us, either through the provision of new services or through increased tax-take which then funds public services.
Any increase in the population, whether domestic or from abroad, has its challenges. But if carefully managed, there is scope to extend the reach of services and community infrastructure just as we have done while the UK grew to its current population of 70 million.
There was a time when talking about immigration carried the fear of being viewed as xenophobic. That was unhelpful. So too is the politicised language which features in the current debate.
As a nation we need the following aspects to the fore in any real discussion of immigration:
- Valid statistics and not newspaper headlines
- Considering what we mean when, not unreasonably, asking incomers to integrate into UK society, and ensuring those requests are achievable for migrants
- Appreciation that the next immigrant may be a doctor; but even if they are not, they may be the IT expert who sets up the hospital record system or the builder who helps build the new wing of the hospital.
We should be proud to live in a country that offers the kind of opportunities which attract migrants. Those who come in should respect the UK through seeking to mix beyond communities dominated by other migrants. That requires a good level of spoken English or, at least, a commitment to learn the language. In exchange, we Brits should re-assess the words we currently choose when discussing immigration and to take a balanced view of the overall situation.