UK Immigration: The campaign for zero migration is popular but misguided
Yes we should talk about "crowding" and immigration but there has been a shortage of debate about the distinct issue of population level and government policy: and we need an informed debate.
Two weeks ago, the Office for National Statistics published its latest population projections, which extrapolate from current trends to suggest the UK will grow from 62.3 million people today to 70 million in 16 years.The ONS also estimates that 47 per cent of this projected increase would come directly from immigration, and a further 21 per cent from the children of future migrants.Off the back of these figures, the pressure group MigrationWatch launched an e-petition, titled “No to 70 million”, but more accurately described as “no to net immigration”, since it “call[s] on the government to take all necessary steps to get immigration down to a level that will stabilise our population as close to the present level as possible.” Given that the petition had the high profile backing of the two biggest selling papers, the Daily Mail and the Sun, it is hardly surprising that it quickly reached the target of 100,000 signatures, which triggers a debate in parliament.
Let us not dwell on the methodological limitations of the ONS projections. The ONS itself stresses that the projections“are not forecasts” and simply extrapolate from recent trends; it is also worth remembering that in previous decades, their projections for the future UK population started at 55m, then eight years later had risen to 76m, then five years later were back down to 65m. It is also worth noting that the straight-line projections of migrant birth rates – let alone the wilder fears of some anti-immigration campaigners – are likely to be revised downwards, since throughout history, birth rates of migrants and their descendants have tended to converge on that of their host country, just as birth rates of country migrants moving to the cities have tended to converge on their new neighbours.
Let us also not dwell on the loaded arguments employed by MigrationWatch and its supporters. For example, in launching the petition, Andrew Green claimed we are the fifth most crowded nation on earth, disregarding “small islands and city states”. In fact, the latest UN figures(for 2010) place Britain 39th out of 196 nations,and while it is true that many of the higher places are filled with small islands and city states, there are also plenty of big islands, or archipelagos, like Taiwan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines; some big developing countries, including Bangladesh and India; but also several developed countries: not only the two mentioned by Green – the Netherlands and South Korea – but also Belgium and Japan.Similarly, in the YouGov survey which MigrationWatch commissioned in support of its campaign, the question about preferred levels of net migration was loaded with the preamble that “To stop the population rising to 70 million, net immigration needs to be cut from around 240,000 last year to around 40,000 in future years”. This is the same formula repeated in the Mail and the Sun, but one which a moment’s reflection reveals to beentirely wrong. Given that the 70 million projection is based on an assumption of net immigration of around 200,000 per year, any significant reduction would “stop the population rising to 70 million”.
The more fundamental question is whetherBritain really is the ‘crowded island’ described by MigrationWatch, the Mail and the Sun. Despite the bias in the survey, I would not contest the basic picture of public opinion it reveals, which is one of strong public support for the idea that Britain is crowded – around 79 per cent. It is interesting, though, that almost as many in the North say that Britain is crowded, as in the South – 77 per cent compared to 81 per cent – despite the fact that actual levels of crowding, whether in terms of sheer population density, or shortages in housing, or pressure on services, are quite different. As in other areas of public policy, it would be interesting to see a survey which asked people how much of a problem they thought crowding was ‘in their area’, as well as nationally.
We should also ask ourselves how bad, or unmanageable, it wouldreally be if we carried on growing through net immigration at, say, 150,000 per year: somewhat below the level of recent years, but three times the maximum tolerable level according to this campaign.Addingthe children of these migrants (though, as noted above, their fertility rates may decline over time)would result in population growth of around two million a decade; together with other demographic changes,total population growth might reach three million.
This is far from trivial, and definitely needs careful planning, particularly in relation to housing, but it is worth putting it in its historical and geographical context: this is similar to the rate of growth Britain experienced between 1900 and 1970, and well below the current global average – where the same UN figures rank us around 140th out of 196, and far lower than most of the countries whose influence in the world is growing.
Of course, if we are to take seriously the talk about “crowding”, focusing on national population growth and density is misleading, since as noted it is really London and the South East which is crowded, rather than our island as a whole. Some towns and cities, particularly in the north, are struggling with the opposite problem.The fundamental driver is economics, rather than migration or birth rates, and the issues raised – of planning for infrastructure, housing, and services – would remain acute in the South East even in the hypothetical scenario of zero net immigration. Moreover, the assertion that 70 million is the danger zone, or the limit of “sustainability”, seems entirely arbitrary. We would still be less densely populated than the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan and South Korea even if we hit 90 million.
It is notable that the e-petition, and the supporting campaign, demands “urgent action” without specifying any actual policies. The real aim of these campaigners – which is zero net migration, as the wording of the e-petition makes clear – would require us to leave the EU, stop British nationals marrying foreigners, and turn all working migrants into guest workers.At the moment, the coalition is proposing only the third of these. Even though people clearly do want less immigration, and worry about crowding, I suspect thatif they were presented with these actual policies for zero net migration, most would reject them.
In fact, a recent survey which probed people’s views on immigration rather deeperthan the MigrationWatch survey, found only weak support for many of the restrictive policies the government is already pursuing, even though they fall far short of what would be required to reach zero net immigration. A clear majority want to see a reduction in illegal migrants and in low-skill migration, but only a minority (32 per cent) support reducing the numbers of either foreign students or high-skill migrants. The net immigration target, urged on the Conservatives by these same campaigners before the election, has painted them into a corner: because the Government is unable to control some of the biggest drivers of net immigration, including emigration, and immigration from the EU, it has ended up clamping down hardest on categories of immigration which are the least unpopular and the most economically valuable, simply because they are the easiest to control.
The familiar claim of MigrationWatch, the Mail, the Sun and others that people “aren’t allowed to talk about immigration” is increasingly absurd, but it is fair to saythere has been a shortage of debate about the distinct issue of population: what an ideal level should be, how far government should try to interfere in that (with all the implications for family policy as well as immigration), how we should plan to deal with it, and how that fits in with broader global issues of population growth, density, urbanisation, resource scarcity, emissions, and other related questions. Now is a good time to have this debate, both in the UK and globally, as we welcome the arrival of theseven billionth baby– though even in global termswe should keep things in context: it has been estimatedthe current global population could fit into the state of Texas, if it was as densely populated as New York City.What we need is a serious debate about these issues, not more dodgy numbers and apocalyptic predictionswhich scratch the millenarian itch for a secular age.
Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cav_
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