24 November 2023

Britain cannot afford to forget the benefits of migration


This week’s sky-high migration statistics have provoked the usual uproar. Suella Braverman and the ‘New Conservatives’ are incensed, Number 10 says it is ‘far too high’, and even Labour leader Keir Starmer has called the figures ‘shockingly high’.

For many, the inability to cut migration feels like betrayal. The Conservatives have promised to reduce migration in every election manifesto since 2010, yet it has doubled since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016 and has now reached record levels. The government has also failed to ‘stop the boats,’ creating a sense that Britain has lost control of its borders and driving broader concern about immigration.

The stark dichotomy between grand political promises and their paltry fulfilment erodes trust in political institutions. It has also muddied the waters of a rational discourse on migration’s merits and demerits. Avoiding the trap of analysing migration through a narrow political lens is essential. A thoughtful dissection of current affairs and a balanced evaluation of migration’s impact is imperative.

At a fundamental level, hundreds of thousands want to uproot their lives and make the United Kingdom their new home. This is a testament to Britain’s enduring allure.

The record-high numbers are driven by work visas, especially in health and social care, study, and those seeking refuge from Ukraine and Hong Kong. The post-Brexit Australian-style points-based system has worked precisely as intended – there has been an increase in skilled, higher-paid non-EU migrants.

Net migration has peaked and is likely to decrease rapidly, particularly as students finish their studies and the vast majority leave the country. Nevertheless, immigrants still make significant cultural, fiscal, and economic contributions.

Immigrants boost productivity by filling skills gaps; with over 950,000 vaccines, immigrants enable British businesses to continue growing and boost productivity. Foreign-born workers comprise almost one in five of the UK’s workforce. Meanwhile, 35% of NHS doctors, 28% of nurses, and 19% of all its staff are immigrants. The Entrepreneurs Network have found that 39% of the UK’s fastest-growing startups have at least one immigrant co-founder – despite just 14% of UK residents being foreign born.

Immigrants are younger and tend to work, reducing the fiscal strain of an ageing population. A UCL study concluded that between 2000 and 2011, immigrants on net contributed £25bn to public finances while the contribution of UK natives was negative, costing £617bn. The Office for Budget Responsibility has assed, due to higher immigration numbers in recent years, that the UK’s labour force is 1.5% larger, contributing an immense £40bn to GDP and £18bn to tax revenues.

None of this is to suggest that immigration doesn’t also come with costs as well as benefits.

Integration needs to be considered. A successful immigrant society will depend on cultural confidence in Britain’s liberal values. Immigrants must be expected to respect institutions like the rule of law, democracy and individual rights.

However, immigrants do not just pay taxes and work – it should be remembered that they place strains on housing, infrastructure and public services. Combining migration with significant new investment across these areas, particularly addressing the broken planning system, is necessary. Though, of course, this would be much harder without foreign workers. The biggest rise in immigrants is in the health and care sectors, with 143,990 over the last year.

This gets to the central challenge for those calling to reduce migration numbers – who exactly do they not want to come to the UK, and are they willing to pay the additional costs? Would they like the NHS not to have enough doctors and nurses to treat patients? Do they want to decimate the UK’s £29bn higher education export industry by limiting foreign students? Are they willing to accept higher inflation because of labour shortages and pay even higher taxes to fund the costs associated with an ageing population? Do they want high-tech businesses to leave the UK? Is their plan to turn away Ukrainians and Hongkongers at the border?

It’s easy enough to talk about reducing immigration in the abstract, but the fundamental reason why this has not happened is because of these trade-offs. The vast majority of people come to the UK to work or pay dearly to attend a university and significantly contribute to tax revenue. There is also evidence, despite the loudest voices, that opposition to immigration has declined, particularly since Brexit, and that more British people than ever believe immigration is economically and culturally beneficial.

Immigration is not a problem to be solved, but something to be embraced in ways that make Britain more prosperous.

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Matthew Lesh is Director of Public Policy and Communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.