Immigration: good for your health and wealth says Institute of Economic Affairs. Shame no one's listening

The free market think tank has put forward some good ideas for making the system work better. Unfortunately they may struggle to get a hearing

James Moore
Thursday 17 November 2016 12:10
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The Institute for Economic Affairs says UK should embrace immigration
The Institute for Economic Affairs says UK should embrace immigration

I usually rank reading the pronouncements of the free market fundamentalists at the Institute of Economic Affairs alongside visits to the dentist or appointments at the Redbridge phlebotomy service.

Nonetheless, read them I do, in part because it’s good to know what your opponents are thinking, but also because every now and again the IEA has something interesting and worthwhile to say.

It’s latest missive on immigration is in that category, particularly given the juvenile quality of the debate on that subject in this country.

“Keep freedom of movement, regardless of single market membership,” it says, which seems a little counter intuitive given that the free movement of people is to the minds of many the biggest block on Britain’s continuing to stay in the trading area.

But it actually makes a lot of sense. If the British Government is set on a hard Brexit involving an exit from the European Economic Area (EEA) as well as the EU (even though no one actually voted for that) the economy will need every bit of help it can get.

Immigration helps the economy. Ukipers and their allies can argue about cultural issues for as long as they like, but financially, and economically, it’s case closed. Immigration makes us richer.

First off, immigrants widen the tax base to the extent that the IEA estimates that their contributions to the public purse relieves the UK’s debt burden by as much as £2,000 for every British citizen.

They also widen the skills base and are essential when it comes to filling in gaps where they exist.

The NHS would collapse without migrant labour. So would parts of the private sector. Many companies would have to cease trading if they weren’t able to import the skills they need.

Those who argue that we should train more of our own people up might like to reflect upon the fact that organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry have been banging on about the skills gap for years without anything much being done about it by a succession of governments.

Even if ministers were to suddenly find policies to work the oracle, it would still take years for a corps of new super-skilled youngsters to enter the workforce. And, remember, they’d be attractive targets for other countries when ready. Fancy European citizenship? Come to Germany for a job!

Immigrants are just as important at the other end. They do a lot of the lower skilled jobs that Britons won’t do.

The British food everyone’s suddenly so keen on buying? It doesn’t get from farmer’s field to supermarket shelf through the efforts of British workers. Just as the country lacks skills at the top end, it also lacks people at the other end of the employment scale who are willing to spend long, back-breaking days, in East Anglian fields for the minimum wage.

Immigrants. They’re good for your health, and your wealth. Trouble is that’s not a popular argument right now.

“We need a more open, better regulated, simpler and non-discriminatory migration policy. While a unilaterally open migration system is ultimately the best policy economically, it may not be politically possible straight away,” says the IEA.

No kidding. Immigration played perhaps the biggest role in Brexit, largely because politicians have lacked the courage to make a case for it and have chosen instead to pander to the worst instincts of the tabloids.

The IEA “in the meantime” has some good ideas such as scrapping former Prime Minister David Cameron’s arbitrary and silly migration target, moving to a “skills neutral” work permit system to replace visa grants, automatically granting student visas and maintaining bilateral free movement with the EEA block.

It also suggests the establishment of a similar system to the one used in Sweden, where companies are able to employ migrants on a renewable two-year visa that is skills-neutral.

Whether even those sensible proposals are politically achievable, however, is still open to question.

The IEA points out that, by contrast to what you might read in the tabloids, the UK is not experiencing mass immigration. Relative to its 65 million population, net migration was a tiny 0.51 per cent in 2015. There is no evidence that migrants deprive Britons of jobs, unemployment is low at the moment and they rarely compete for the same sort of posts Britons apply for anyway, there is no evidence that they are benefit tourists, and they can’t even be blamed for straining public services.

That one is on the Government, the failings of which are at the root cause of many of the problems attributed to immigration.

Immigration is good for us. Problems have been grossly over stated where they aren’t entirely mythical. Kudos to the IEA for making a logical, credible and sensible case, for it. It’s just a shame that so few people will be willing to hear it.

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