Leading figures in Vote Leave, the official Brexit campaign used to say that they would not need to focus on immigration to win the EU referendum debate.
Dominic Cummings, the group’s campaign director, said two years ago that the campaign’s “one essential task” was to reassure voters that leaving would not be bad for jobs and living standards.
Unfortunately for them, all of Britain and the world’s leading economic authorities said early in the campaign that, actually, it almost certainly would. So the strategy changed. An article by Michael Gove in The Timeson April 25th set the new tone.
“Because we cannot control our borders – and because our deal sadly does nothing to change this fact - public services such as the NHS will face an unquantifiable strain as millions more become EU citizens.”
Leave campaigners have also raised concerns about migration’s impact on the availability of jobs.
Putting immigration front and centre was a calculated move but many of the assertions of Leave campaigners have been challenged.
The scale of immigration
Net migration to the UK stood at 333,000 in 2015. 630,000 people moved to the country in that year, and 297,000 left, according to the Office for National Statistics, giving us the oft-quoted net migration figure of 333,000. Of those who immigrated to the UK, there were slightly more non-EU citizens than EU citizens.
The Government’s stated goal is to have net migration in the tens of thousands. Many argue that cutting migration to this level could be bad for the economy. Regardless, because of high levels of non-EU migration – which the Government can already control through the visa system, leaving the EU and ending the automatic right of EU citizens to live in Britain would not automatically achieve this target.
Vote Leave claims that by 2030, the UK population could increase by 5.23m by 2030. This is based on the assumption that Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia will join the EU by 2020, giving their citizens the automatic right to come and live in the UK. None of these states has an official accession date.
Vote Leave campaign material has particularly focused on the prospect of Turkey joining the EU. While it is certainly the aim of the EU, the Turkish leadership, and the British government for Turkey to eventually enter the EU, all sides accept that the prospect is likely to be a long way off. All potential EU countries must adopt EU rules before they can be admitted. These rules are split into 35 policy areas and in 10 years of trying, Turkey has so far only succeeded in meeting all the rules in only one area – science and research.
The impact of immigration on jobs
Former Work and Pensions Secretary and Leave campaigner Iain Duncan Smith has said that high levels of EU migration mean British workers are “forced to compete” with millions from abroad for employment.
The number EU workers in Britain has certainly increased quickly in the past three years, from 1.4m to 2.1m, and from 2.6 per cent of the workforce a decade ago to 6.8 per cent last year.
However, the rapid increase in EU workers – 700,000 extra in the past three years – coincided with an increase of one million in the number of British people in work. Employment growth has been impressive across the board as Britain emerges from the post-2008 recessions – and both UK and EU citizens have benefitted.
It is also the case that many of the jobs that have been created in that time are the result of increased migration. A bigger population requires more goods and services, which means more jobs are created to provide them. Without doubt, migration from the EU helped us out of the economic doldrums.
Concern among voters often focuses on the fear that migrants come to the UK to exploit its welfare system, but HMRC figures show that migrants who arrived in Britain in the last four years EU migrants paid £2.5bn more in income tax and national insurance than they took in tax credits and child benefit.
Immigration and the single market
EU migration to the UK is high because freedom of movement is a key commitment that states must sign up to if they want to be part of the European single market – the tariff-free trade area that is the source of much of the economic benefit of EU membership.
The Leave campaign has given mixed messages as to whether it would want Britain to leave the EU but stay in the single market – a relationship similar to the one Norway has with the EU. Even those states which are outside the EU must accept freedom of movement to be part of the single market. Boris Johnson has said the UK would have “access” to the single market. If he means it would be a member, then it would be unprecedented for this to be offered without Britain also having to accept free movement. The Remain campaign have therefore sought to emphasise that it’s highly unlikely we could have it both ways.
Immigration and the NHS
In a major speech on immigration, Michael Gove warned that more arrivals could make the NHS “unsustainable” by 2030.
The NHS itself disagrees. Chief executive of NHS England has pointed out that 130,000 European-born doctors, nurses and care workers are vital to keep our health and care services functioning. It is unclear what their working status would be in the event of Brexit, but Vote Leave has indicated it would want them to stay.
Migration can benefit the NHS in other ways. About 78 per cent of working age EU migrants in the UK are in work (a higher proportion than among UK nationals), so most are paying tax and contributing to the NHS – in theory making it better able to cope with the higher numbers of patients.
Migrants are also more likely to be young and fit so less likely to need the NHS.
Importantly, migration has not been the biggest factor increasing pressure on the NHS in recent years – it’s been an ageing population, with patients more likely to suffer long-term conditions like heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and dementia as they age. Simon Stevens has argued that we need more younger migrants to fill the population gap, providing taxes to pay for the care of the older generation and filling the care jobs that will be created.
The EU referendum debate has so far been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. So until 23 June we we’re running a series of question and answer features that explain the most important issues in a detailed, dispassionate way to help inform your decision.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies