Harry Cockburn: Electioneering over immigration will only damage the recovery


We must confront attitudes to immigration, not pander to ignorance

Harry Cockburn is business reporter at LondonlovesBusiness.com. Follow him @LondonlovesBiz and @Harry_Cockburn

In the film Cool Runnings, the arrival of the Jamaican bobsled team at the 1988 winter Olympics in Calgary causes scoffing among rival teams from traditional winter-sports-winning countries. “We’re different. People are always afraid of what’s different”, one of the Jamaicans says to his downcast team-mate.

Of course, the unlikely heroes go on to win over any doubters and their opponents have to re-evaluate their prejudices. The sport and the Olympics emerge stronger for their inclusion.

It is a basic moral message aimed at children, but it is one that we would do well to bear in mind in the current political climate in Britain.

In the UK, we are not just afraid of what we think is different, we’re terrified. And despite the growing body of evidence available to us detailing the positive effects of immigration, a significant proportion of us remain inclined to let uninformed prejudices do us down.

As a result, the next election is set to be scarred by preposterous efforts to appeal to a proportion of the electorate who believe a tide of immigrants will sweep in and deprive British people of jobs, or will scrounge benefits and become a burden on the state. Politicians are often heard saying they would like to have a sensible debate about migration, but all too often, they pander to voters’ illogical fears rather than attempting to address them.

This short-sighted approach has been demonstrated in full this week, after it emerged that the government has withheld a cross-governmental report on the impacts of immigration in the UK. The reason? The report suggests that the displacement of British workers by the arrival of immigrants is a considerably lower figure than previously thought, thereby undermining the government’s anti-immigrant stance ahead of European elections in May.

Cameron’s posturing on benefits tourism and his desire to change freedom of movement within the EU has already raised incredulous eyebrows in Brussels. The EU commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, Laszlo Andor, recently said he deplored the quality of debate over the issue in the UK, which is unlike anywhere else in Europe. The fiasco over the “go home” billboard vans has been a recent example of shameless British folly in this area.

So what are the relevant facts and figures that the government and businesses should be grappling with?

Firstly, immigrants to the UK are generally younger and more able-bodied than the extant population. Claims that immigrants are a strain on public services are ill-founded. According to a study by University College London, immigrants to the UK since 1999 have not only made a “significant” contribution to public finances, but are also 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives and 3% less likely to live in social housing.

The UCL report also found that in 2011, 32% of recent European Economic Area (EEA) immigrants and 43% of non-EEA immigrants had university degrees, compared with 21% of the British adult population, so they are not unskilled workers.

Migrants from the European Union have made a particularly note-worthy contribution over the decade up to 2011, contributing an astonishing 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits.

This week it has emerged that one in every seven firms operating in the UK was founded by immigrant entrepreneurs, and immigrants to the UK are considerably more likely than people born in the UK to launch businesses. The report, by the Centre for Entrepreneurs think-tank with financial technology firm DueDil, was described as “breathtaking”. It found that 17.2% of immigrants in the UK have founded their own businesses, compared with just 10.4% of British born individuals.

Finally, guess which country is the biggest exporter of people in the EU? That’s right – Britain. In fact, only China and India have more people living abroad than us, which is why trying to curb freedom of movement within the EU smacks of arrogance.

In Britain, our labour market is Europe’s most flexible and our economy is now growing again. Curbing talent coming into our country may win votes in the short-term, but in the long-term, isolationist policies will only hobble our recovery.

Harry Cockburn is business reporter at LondonlovesBusiness.com. Follow him @LondonlovesBiz and @Harry_Cockburn

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