May’s migration myths

Written By: Paul Donovan
Published: March 11, 2017 Last modified: March 11, 2017

Can the Prime Minister be seriously contemplating cutting links with the European Union’s single market – Britain’s largest trading area – because she really believes that “securing the borders” is a more important priority?

The need to secure the borders, a hardly concealed code for keeping out migrants, is a total nonsense. The UK’s borders are secure – or if they aren’t a lot of public money is being expended on the Borders Agency and a myriad of supporting private companies charged with attaining that goal.

Increasingly, it seems that the Brexit vote was predicated on a number of lies. Foremost among was the myth  that migrants were flocking to this country for benefits because Britain is an easy touch. Among the migrants were criminals and wrongdoers.

Now to leave the la-la land of Daily Express and Daily Mail story-telling. The reality is somewhat different.Migrants come to the UK predominantly to work or study. It has been their contribution things that has led to the buoyancy of the UK economy. If the work were not here, neither would the migrants be. During the EU referendum debate the good news story on immigration rarely surfaced. If it had, people would understand that migration was not the cause of growing levels of poverty across the land.

Some facts. Seventeen per cent of the UK workforce is made up of non-British born workers (that is, 5.4 million people out of a 31.6 million workforce). This has increased from 8 per cent in 2000. Some 19 per cent of NHS workers are foreign born. The IPPR think tank has warned that the National Health Service would “collapse” without its EU workers. Education is a major and growing sector for the UK economy, with foreign students estimated to contribute £11.8 billion. A study by University College London found that European migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion to UK public finances between 2000 and 2011.

Many of the migrant workforce is made up of single people who work here for a while but then go home. They pay taxes for which they do not receive the requisite public services in return. Net winner: the British taxpayer. If UK citizens want to retain their present level of public service, then the revenue generated by migrant workers – as well as those workers themselves – are desperately needed. It has been the high level of migrants coming into the UK over recent years compared to other European countries that has contributed to the strength of the economy here compared to elsewhere.

Given all this, how incredible to hear Theresa May welcoming the news that there are now fewer EU nationals coming to the UK, post-Brexit. She seems to hang onto the ridiculous notion of her predecessor in Number 10 that it is a good thing to reduce net migration down to the tens of thousands. This is an economically illiterate position for any senior politician to adopt.
One way to significantly reduce migration is to destroy the country’s economic base. An economy in recession will not offer, so migrants will not want come to in the UK. This seems to be what May is saying she wants above all else, when she puts controlling immigration above trade with our neighbours.

All of that said, migration has not been handled well over the past couple of decades. Migrants have been allowed to be used by unscrupulous employers – including private householders wanting work done on the cheap to their properties – to undercut the pay and terms and conditions of the indigenous workforce. This use of migration as an unofficial incomes policy has led to some of the grievances that helped to create the anti-migrant atmosphere.
These problems could have been addressed by having a higher minimum wage that was stringently enforced, with no undercutting of terms and conditions, while ensuring migrant labourers joined trade unions.

In the EU referendum debate people were told that the nation’s problems were caused migrants and the EU. But fault lies with the banking crisis of 2008 and the austerity policies that followed. The result has been large numbers of people seeing their wages flat-line or decline. The banks have got away with ripping off taxpayers for huge amounts of money, and they continue to do so.

The great irony of the referendum result is that the mass of the people who voted to leave the EU stand to become poorer, along with the rest. Wages will not rise but prices will, courtesy of the falling pound.

So is Theresa May really as daft as her recent pronouncements on Brexit suggest? Or is it all window dressing to lay the ground work for a new deal with the EU that can be to the benefit of all? We a have to hope it is the latter. But given the positive reaction to the news of reduced numbers of migrants coming to the UK and begging-bowl approach of British ministers trotting round the globe looking for whatever trade deals the United States, Australia and New Zealand may offer, no one should bet on it.