Leading article: The truth about migration

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The Independent Online

Not so long ago, the headlines were full of dire warnings about the number of Poles and other East and Central European migrants who were entering Britain. We were told that public services in market towns were being put under intolerable strain and that local transport networks were at breaking point. The question troubling House of Commons committees and Whitehall mandarins was what measures could be taken to mitigate the social impact of such migration.

But the latest Home Office figures suggest that our political masters have been fighting the last war. The number of East and Central European migrants seeking work in this country has fallen to its lowest level since EU enlargement four years ago. Applications for employment between April and June this year were lower than at any time since 2004.

These figures demonstrate a truth about migration which some in our society have always been loath to accept: that the greatest single influence is usually not government regulation but market forces. Britain sucked in large numbers of Poles and others in the years after 2004 primarily because our economy was growing so strongly. Now that economic activity here is drying up, there is less demand for labour. More East and Central Europeans are therefore returning home, or staying away.

Of course, migration is not influenced solely by labour demand in one country. The sustained expansion of East and Central European economies, while those of "old Europe" slip into negative growth, is another powerful incentive for workers to ply their trade at home, rather than abroad. Finally, there is also the sharp decline in the value of the pound in recent months against the euro. It has become more profitable for a Warsaw plumber to set up shop elsewhere on the continent.

This shows us why we should be sceptical about scare stories concerning migration trends. Economies tend to find their equilibrium unless interfered with by politicians. Indeed, our political masters might like to keep a close eye on the migration figures from now on for a very different reason: when the numbers start to rise again, it will be a good indication that our own economy is through the worst.