Manifesto report: Immigration

Published: 3rd May 2015

In this section

Introduction

Immigration is seen as the most important single issue facing Britain today and one of the most important issues in helping people decide how to vote.

The last two decades have seen historically high levels of immigration into the UK. Although most immigration continues to come from outside the European Union, increases since the turn of the century have been driven mainly by EU immigration following EU expansion. Migration has also been the main driver of growth in the UK population for the last two decades, although it has been less of a factor in recent years.

Most people are opposed to immigration in general, although if you dig a bit deeper people are more in favour of certain categories of people—such as students and professionals—moving here than of low-skilled workers and asylum seekers.

In recent years the public debate on immigration has often centred on the level of net migration—the difference between the number of people coming here to stay for at least a year (immigration) and the number leaving for at least the same period (emigration). The Conservatives' prominent pledge at the 2010 election to cut net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands has kept the attention of analysts and the media ever since.

In spite of the attention these figures receive, they're highly uncertain because immigration and emigration are difficult to count. At the moment that means when you see claims of net migration at around 300,000 a year, it could easily fall within 40,000 of that either way.

If there's uncertainty about the present there's even more uncertainty about the past. Last year the Office for National Statistics announced that migration in the noughties was higher than it had originally estimated due in part to missing out travel to and from smaller airports.

A lasting consequence of this is that estimates for those years about immigration, emigration and their breakdowns—for instance by people's nationality—are basically wrong and are likely to understate what actually happened during those years. Prior to the introduction of the International Passenger Survey in 1964, from which we get our estimates of migration, we rely on census estimates of the migrant population every ten years, which are more uncertain still.

A big part of the debate also centres on the economic impacts of immigration. While research doesn't agree on whether different groups contribute more to the public finances than they receive overall, most studies suggest the impact of immigration on the public finances is relatively small compared to the overall size of the economy.

Beyond that the debate has covered immigrants' impact on public services, jobs, wages, housing, school places and their social impacts on communities.

All of these—to differing extents—are difficult to calculate as they rely on often significant assumptions about immigrants' behaviour while they're in the UK and in particular the effects of children born to people who come from abroad. Experts disagree on several of these aspects, which means that when it comes to drawing conclusions, it's often a matter of reviewing the breadth of research on the topics rather than relying on a single study alone.


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