Immigration - it's time to change the debate
When I started reporting on the crime statistics as a BBC correspondent about 25 years ago the headline figure was invariably the main story. ‘Crime is up!’, ‘Crime soars again…’, ‘Britain faces crime wave’ - that kind of thing.
Over time, however, it became clear that the headline figure, for the overall number of crimes, was pretty meaningless. A murder was counted as one offence, as was the theft of a bicycle. In numerical terms, a rape had the same value as a common assault. The overall figure was a blunt instrument, wielded by the media to sell papers and attract TV viewers, but incapable of showing how crime affected people.
Focusing on the overall figure also had huge implications on policy. In the 90s and early 2000s, in an effort to drive down total numbers, politicians tended to concentrate efforts on the most common types of offence, such as car thefts and burglaries, and neglect lower-volume but high-harm crimes, such as child abuse, domestic violence and knife crime.
Now, there’s a more nuanced approach - even if the rhetoric on crime sometimes suggests otherwise. For example, it is largely viewed as a positive development that sexual offences recorded by police have gone up, as it indicates that victims are more willing to come forward than in the past. A spike in online fraud, on the other hand, demonstrates that criminals are increasingly exploiting our growing use of new technology. By highlighting trends in specific categories of crime, rather than the total figure, we can get a much better picture of what’s really going on and how to address it.
There are clear lessons for the toxic debate about immigration where the overall figure is still the headline, obscuring the real picture. For that, much of the blame rests with the Conservatives. In its 2010 manifesto, the party, then led by David Cameron, promised to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands”, that is, less than 100,000. Reducing net migration - the number of people coming to live in the UK minus the number emigrating from the country - has remained the focus of the Tories’ immigration policy ever since and the “tens of thousands” target has never really gone away.
After Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as Prime Minister in 2019, the target was replaced with a more vague manifesto pledge that “overall numbers will come down” - interpreted to mean bringing net migration to below the total it was then, 226,000 - only to be resurrected last October. The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman declared that achieving it was her “ultimate aspiration”, although Rishi Sunak has said only that he wants to reduce net migration to below the level he “inherited” when he became leader. It was 504,000 in the year to June 2022, four months before he took over.
Given that for the past 13 years the Government has placed so much store on net migration it is little wonder that Opposition politicians, campaigners and the press have focused on it too. But it hasn’t served the country very well or deepened our understanding of the benefits and downsides of immigration. Take the example of humanitarian protection.
The Government, with backing from across the political divide, set up schemes to allow people in from Afghanistan, during the evacuation of the country in 2021, and Ukraine, after the Russian invasion in 2022. In the 12 months to last June, 110,000 people arrived. No one has seriously suggested that it was wrong for Britain to offer sanctuary to Afghans and Ukrainians. In fact, if there has been criticism it's that the UK Government was too slow to act and not generous enough. But the 110,000 people who arrived contributed to the surge in net migration that has attracted such criticism.
Then there’s the issue of overseas students. The former Education Secretary, Kit Malthouse, has added his voice to calls for them to be removed from the immigration statistics, arguing that they’re not really ‘immigrants’ because they pay for a course then leave the country. But to separate students out would be to fiddle the figures to suit a political goal. The Office for National Statistics defines immigrants as people coming to the UK for more than 12 months. If students are on courses which last longer than a year they will be added to the figures. Why should they be counted differently to foreign workers given a two-year contract by a British company or people arriving from abroad for family reasons intending to return to their home country in a few years? The problem is not that students are included in the immigration figures, it’s that net migration has become the only show in town.
If we were able to view immigration in a less simplistic way we could develop policies that meet our humanitarian responsibilities and match the needs of the economy while maintaining social cohesion. Instead we’re stuck in this debilitating ‘yah boo’ cycle of ‘net migration up-net migration down’ which helps no one.
Each aspect of immigration presents different challenges. In general, overseas students, of whom there are now 600,000 in the UK, contribute to the economy through their fees to universities and colleges - almost £42 billion in 2021-22 - without unduly burdening public services. Research suggests the majority of students depart after their courses and although there will always be the need for vigilance, to ensure education routes are not being exploited or extended unfairly, their presence in Britain should be celebrated.
For those arriving for humanitarian protection the key issue is infrastructure. Can the NHS, schools and housing cope with the numbers? Where is the pressure being felt? What additional resources and support are needed? We should build on the goodwill and generosity shown in the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme. My family and I took part in the programme - it wasn’t perfect, it was clunky at times and no doubt there were instances where it didn’t work out - but it’s an approach that should be adopted in future international crises and as an alternative to housing refugees in hotels. An efficient asylum system, in which applications are processed speedily and claimants are allowed to work after, say, three months, would also alleviate pressures in this sector.
International migration for work is the most complex area. There is clearly something fundamentally wrong when a country with one of the largest economies in the world and a thriving higher education sector has 31 work categories on the list of occupations for which there are shortages. The jobs which UK companies and organisations can recruit from abroad include architects, lab technicians, IT specialists, vets, engineers, graphic designers, welders, arts directors, ballet dancers, archeologists and scientists - not to mention care workers, doctors and nurses.
Last year, the Government issued 268,000 work visas, almost twice as many as in 2019. The increase was partly due to a rise in migration from outside the EU following Brexit and the end of Covid restrictions. But it’s a terrible indictment of the training and apprenticeship programmes on offer to workers based in Britain that we have to rely so extensively on overseas labour which, in some cases, means plundering skilled workforces in countries less well off than our own.
Labour has published plans to boost staff training in the UK and stop firms hiring people from overseas on salaries of 20 per cent less than the ‘going rate’, which is currently permitted for jobs on the shortage occupation list. That would certainly be a start - but there would doubtless have to be trade-offs while the arrangements bed in, to ensure businesses and public services that are struggling to fill vacancies don’t collapse.
The debate about immigration must be more than just an attack on net migration. Ministers must wean themselves off the tired narratives and explain that in some areas immigration is a real positive, while in others it’s a sign of a failure that they must rectify.
The way we think about immigration must change, just as how our approach to crime has changed. There are now distinct strategies for countering fraud, anti-social behaviour, drugs, violence against women and girls and other types of offending. It's more than just numbers, it's about people.
And the same is true of immigration.