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By Philippe Legrain 2 COMMENTS

The British government is in a muddle over immigration – and it shows. Its
decision to allow the Poles and other east Europeans who joined the EU
in 2004 to come work here freely was brave and right. It has given the
economy a new lease of life, filling shortages, revitalising ageing
communities, and allowing growth to continue for longer without running
into inflationary bottlenecks. Gordon Brown should be crowing about it
– it is a key reason why the economy continues to enjoy its
longest-ever boom.

Instead, the Romanians and Bulgarians who joined the EU this year were denied the same labour rights granted to other east Europeans, while Brown harrumphs about “British jobs for British workers” and immigration minister Liam Byrne curries favour with the Daily Mail brigade with his tough talk about deporting asylum-seekers, ID cards for foreigners and more stringent border controls. Far from making a positive case for immigration, the government is in shambles, appearing in turn weak, defensive and outright hostile. No wonder it is in danger of losing the argument.

It needn’t be so. When the government takes policy seriously, it can commission heavyweight research that changes hearts as well as minds: the Stern report on the economics of climate change, for instance, or the Turner report on pensions. Considering the current angst about migration, and its importance to Britain’s future, surely it is time the government commissioned some serious analysis of the issue? Instead, it trots out flimsy, half-baked reports that are a gift to opponents of immigration such as MigrationWatch and its soulmates in the Conservative Party.

Its latest effort, billed as a “comprehensive cross-government report” on the economic and fiscal impact of immigration, is a case in point. One of the few things going for it is that it skewers the Gordian notion of British jobs for British workers: “it is not true to say that there are only a fixed number of jobs to go round,” it says. Migration has had “no discernible impact” on unemployment and “only a modest dampening of wage growth for the poorest British workers”. But in most other respects, the study is pathetically poor.

Its headline figure is that the economy gained £6 billion in 2006 from recent migration. That may sound impressive, but it amounts to only £100 per person a year, or £2 each a week. And since it is basically arrived at by adjusting the size of the economy upward in line with the increased number of immigrants working here, it will allow critics such as MigrationWatch to claim that, according to government figures, immigration merely boosts the size of the economy, rather than actual living standards.

But the true contribution that immigrants make to the economy is far greater than government figures allow for. Foreigners benefit Britain because they are different, and that something extra they add to the mix enriches the economy, culture and society.

For a start, immigrants tend to be enterprising and hard-working, because it takes courage to uproot yourself in search of a better life and because those with most grit have most to gain from doing so. They are more willing to move to where the jobs are, and to change jobs as conditions change, making the economy more adaptable, and thus keeping inflation and interest rates lower than otherwise.

Those who come from countries that offer fewer opportunities to their citizens than Britain does are more willing to do the low-skilled jobs that our ageing and increasingly wealthy society relies on, but which Britain’s increasingly well-educated and comfortable citizens are unwilling to take – essential services, such as caring for the young and the old, construction work, and cleaning homes, offices and hospitals, that cannot readily be mechanised or imported. Their efforts often complement those of British workers: a foreign child-minder may allow a British doctor to return to work, where her productivity is enhanced by hard-working foreign nurses and cleaners.

Others bring exceptional individual skills that British companies need if they are to compete in a global marketplace. And immigrants’ collective diversity and dynamism help spur innovation and economic growth, because if people who think differently bounce ideas off each other they can solve problems better and faster, as a huge volume of research shows. Twenty-one of Britain’s Nobel laureates arrived in the country as refugees.

What does the government’s report have to say about all this? It recognises all these factors, but fails to make any attempt to quantify their benefits. On living standards, it says that: “There is no quantitative evidence available on the impact of immigration on GDP per head,” but that “Wage data suggest migrants may have a positive impact directly through their own output and indirectly through raising the productivity of others.” So why on earth hasn’t it commissioned further research to provide this evidence?

It then undermines its own headline figure of a £6 billion gain, by adding that “it would not be right to estimate the total contribution of all migrant workers simply by subtracting their productive output and numbers respectively from the numerator and denominator of the GDP per head ratio calculation. The integration of migrant workers in the economy, and their ability to complement the activities of other workers, means that the impact on national output of a total withdrawal of migrant labour would be likely to be very substantial.” If the impact would be “very substantial”, surely it would be worth trying to get a measure of it?

Liam Byrne trumpets “a new balance” in migration policy: “On the one hand we must list the benefits,” he says. “But we have to list the impacts on public services and communities too. Then we make decisions by balancing the two.” In effect, he implies that the impacts of immigration on public services and communities are negative. But that is nonsense. The NHS would grind to a halt without foreign workers. London would not be the exciting cosmopolitan metropolis that attracts go-getting people from around Britain and the world were it not for immigration.

Immigration brings big economic, social and cultural benefits to Britain. But by being so half-hearted in highlighting them, the government is putting them at risk.

This article was commissioned by the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog.

Posted 17 Oct 2007 in Blog
  1. Tony says:

    Do you agree with the following quote?
    “The large scale employer looking at greater profitability or the way to cut costs has several options open, the easiest and laziest being to cut wages. If the workers are well-organised they can resist this so there are two options open to the major capitalist. Either take the factories to where the cheap labour is or take the cheap labour to where the factories are. The first option entails great pollution, as a rule — not that they ever care about that — and in some cases they have to go into areas of political instability. It is cheaper to move the cheap labour.
    Having thus encouraged immigration, wearing the financial hat as it were, the capitalist in the capacity of a right-wing politician, dons the political hat and denounces immigration. This has the advantage of setting worker against worker, fuelled by religious and/or racial antipathies which can persist for generations, and have the added bonus of inducing the worker to support the right wing electorally. It does the capitalist no harm to have a work force hated by those who surround them, or in fear of deportation if they step out of line. Nor does it harm the capitalist, in a political context, to have issues such as immigration replace the basic issue of the wage and monetary system. It only becomes harmful from that point of view when a fascist force such as Hitler’s gains such armed might that it can ignore the wishes of the capitalists which gave them that power and strives for its own superiority.”
    Albert Meltzer

  2. Stanislaw Witkiewicz says:

    Thats right we are Polish and work well but to be honest I find it strange that I must come to UK to work and rather work at home for my country.
    While I am away British people buy up houses and flats in my town and make it more expensive than my increase in wages to buy a house which is what I want. So I extend my time here. But English people not mine, I prefer and miss Polish.
    Maybe bright economist immigrant like you can explain why this happens. Seems like backwards to me but who am I to know?

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