Time to get the facts straight
The debate on immigration is dominated too often by meaningless and misinterpreted statistics
Britain is a very different country because of immigration, and the scale of immigration has risen dramatically in the past couple of decades. Too often that goes unsaid.
Immigration is an issue that matters a lot to a lot of people, and with good reason. It is both an economic and a cultural issue.
The potency of the cultural issue is obvious from the classic finding that people who are most concerned about immigration are often the people living in areas less affected by it. Immigration affects people’s perceptions of the country, as well as people’s experiences.
Despite this, it usually seems to be treated in Westminster as an economic issue, with politicians offering simplistic numbers in response to complex feelings. We often hear the stock response is that immigration is good for the economy. But the analysis requires more nuance than this.
It is fair to say that immigration is probably a benefit to the public finances, albeit not a very big one.
But we also know that immigration has an effect on wages: low-wage workers lose, while medium and high-paid workers gain.
It is pretty useless to present that positive picture of the whole economy to one of the people whose wages are lower because of competition from immigrants. Immigration has economic downsides as well as benefits.
It’s natural to look at the big overall picture. But it’s dangerous to overlook what the big picture is made up of: in this case, very different experiences for different kinds of people.
Migration statistics are complex, and both sides during the recent referendum campaign got them wrong. The immigration debate has come to be dominated by one number, total net migration into the UK, and one target, tens of thousands. Never mind that net migration cannot be measured to the nearest ten thousand, and never mind that those numbers have been badly inaccurate.
The then prime minister David Cameron quoted Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures about the balance of migration to and from the EU. The ONS had elsewhere said these figures were wrong, but had not labelled them clearly in the spreadsheet that the prime minister was using.
Vote Leave wrongly stated that EU migration was more than half of net migration. That is the wrong sum: you cannot divide one by the other because that ignores the net emigration of Brits from the UK. Information providers can and should do more to prevent these errors.
A few years ago, the ONS helped Full Fact get rid of a whole series of inaccurate press stories about how many new jobs went to foreign workers. These headlines, ‘X per cent of new jobs go to foreign workers’, used to come out every three months with the ONS release. But the logic and the maths behind them were wrong.
The ONS added one line to the release warning readers not to make this mistake, and that meant Full Fact could get corrections from all the newspapers concerned and stop those mistaken stories running again.
We need to do much more like that in future. Beyond the numbers, what do we know about people’s reactions to the immigration debate in the EU referendum? Did the remain campaign’s messages of “we have control over our borders and anyway immigration is good for the economy” seem out of touch? What was the alternative from leave? An unlikely have-your-cake-and-eat-it best of both worlds with free trade and restricted movement, contrasted with implausibly confident forecasts that the record high level of net migration would continue decades into the future.
It was never made clear how UK control of immigration from the EU could change the numbers, when estimated immigration from the rest of the world is even higher than immigration from the EU. To see just how unhelpful net migration is on its own, you only have to look at the difference between EU and non-EU migration. Both currently at roughly the same level, but EU migration is dominated by people coming to work or to look for work; while half of migration from the rest of the world is students. One number, two very different realities.
The immigration debate badly needs fewer numbers and more choices. We need to understand the tension that exists between the idea of the ideal economic migrant (here in their twenties, gone by retirement, pays their taxes and places little burden on the NHS) or what you might think of as the ideal cultural migrant, who comes to plant new roots and start a new life as a Brit.
We also need to decide what we want from the relationship between free trade and free movement. Instead of being presented with meaningful choices, we get all those numbers: so noisy, nebulous, and null. Listening to the debate on immigration, you could be forgiven for thinking that voters’ opinions have not been paid due respect. That’s a mistake from both sides.
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