Thursday, 8 October 2015

Fact Check: is there zero economic benefit from high immigration?

By Ian Preston

Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London

The evidence – from the OECD, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee and many academics – shows that while there are benefits of selective and controlled immigration, at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero. So there is no case, in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade.

Theresa May, home secretary, speaking at the Conservative Party Conference on October 6, 2015.

Evaluating the home secretary’s claim requires recognising that the economic effects of immigration have several dimensions. Although she says the overall impact is close to zero, she bases that on several specific claims.

The first point of concern is how immigration affects the labour market. It is easy to tell anecdotes about how immigration harms job prospects in receiving countries – but this can be misleading. Immigrants compete with similarly skilled workers but they also create demand for jobs by spending their income. Just like other forms of population growth, economies absorb immigration in many ways: importing capital, adjusting the composition of goods produced, adjusting training and technology.

The effect on wages has been heavily researched in many countries and evidence of large effects has indeed been difficult to find. There are exceptions, but the predominant conclusion is that immigration does not harm wages or employment.

Elsewhere in her speech, May contests this. She admits that migration can help “plug skills shortages” and bring talent in but makes specific negative claims about low wages and employment. She says that “we know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether”. More strongly, she argues that “there are thousands of people who have been forced out of the labour market, still unable to find a job.” Immigration control is needed: “For the sake of the people whose wages are cut, and whose job security is reduced, when immigration is too high.”

What happens to wages

What we do know about immigration to the UK is that immigrants are, on the whole, well-qualified but nevertheless tend to work initially in less well-paid jobs. There is some evidence from comparisons across regions that wage changes and immigration are most strongly associated in those jobs where immigrants work in the early years after arrival.

This could provide some justification for claims about wages – but it is subject to caveats. The effects are very small and immigrants move up to higher paying jobs the longer they stay so it is likely that such effects will disappear over time. Furthermore, there are counterbalancing wage gains in parts of the labour market where immigrants are not found and these more than compensate overall. On average, if wages gain from immigration then it ought to be possible to compensate those who lose and to benefit collectively.

As regards effects on employment, no convincing evidence exists to support the claim that immigration depresses it. Several studies have failed to find an effect. Work from within the government’s Migration Advisory Committee found evidence of association between one sort of migration in one period and changes in employment but the report in question is itself careful to point out that it is not very robust.

So overall, it’s possible to argue that the effect on the labour market of high immigration is small but not to support some of the other claims made about the labour market.

Positive effect on public finances

A second aspect of economic effect is the effect on the public sector. What we know here is that in the ten years since 2001 the best evidence, trying to account comprehensively for effects through all taxes and all components of public spending, is that migration impacted public finances positively, particularly migration from within the EU but also from outside. This was at a time of overall fiscal deficit when the average British-born person was contributing negatively, as the graph below shows.

Ratio of revenues to expenditures for natives and recent immigrants from inside and outside Europe, 2001-2011 Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, UCL

Concerns about the prevalence of welfare tourism receive scant support from this source since immigrants are actually found to be less likely to claim than British residents.

Whether this effect is “close to zero” or not depends what it is being compared to. As a fraction of the overall deficit over the period it is small but on a per-immigrant basis it is more impressive. This is just the short term impact and a fuller assessment would need to look to the long-term when young, healthy, working immigrants will age, some possibly return to places of origin, and some bring up children whose taxes will contribute.

The home secretary also mentioned effects on specific services, claiming that:

when immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society. It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope.

Even if immigrants are paying enough to cover the costs, it is still sensible to worry about effects on service provision which will matter economically to people using those services. Evidence suggests that immigrants are not less healthy than the British-born, use the NHS no more intensively and immigration may actually be associated with shorter waiting lists.

Immigrants, of course, provide a disproportionate share of certain NHS staff. Immigrants able to work are not more likely to commit crime. The presence of non-English speaking children is not deleterious to English-speaking children’s education. There are certain respects in which immigrants have a clearly positive contribution to education, for example through overseas university fees. Effects on housing and transport are less well-researched.

The home secretary finished her speech by concluding that “there is no case, in the national interest” for large scale immigration. A full evaluation of this claim would need to take account of other aspects to the economic impact about which evidence is thinner. The economic case is not based so much on the scale of migration as perhaps on limiting migration restrictions which prevent firms from searching widely for skills and workers moving to where there are jobs. There is some suggestive and plausible evidence, largely from outside the UK, that immigration promotes innovation, entrepreneurialism and trade in ways that will boosts growth.


It is true that the labour market impacts of immigration on British-born workers are plausibly close to zero – but that contradicts claims made elsewhere in the home secretary’s speech. Fiscal effects, on the other hand, at least in the short term, are not close to zero but positive. A full assessment of economic arguments for immigration would have to go beyond these effects.

Acknowledgement: This piece was first published at The Conversation

Free movement, welfare tourism and refugees

By Ian Preston

Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London

Ian Preston Deputy Director of CReAM and Professor of Economics at UCL, puts forward the case for freedom of movement within the European Union. He explains how freedom of movement and economic migration is important for a dynamic and innovative economy, but it also brings with it redistributive considerations that cannot be ignored. At a time when many politicians conflate economic migration and asylum-seeking refugees, he argues that the two are perhaps not entirely distinct from one another – and discusses reasons why they shouldn’t be treated as one group.

Some economic advantages of free movement of labour

Free movement of labour, in the sense of absence of restriction on European citizens’ rights of location for the purpose of work, has been a longstanding goal of the European Union. But this goal has come under increasing attack, from a variety of directions. Critics include not only those hostile to European Union membership but also some who are professedly sympathetic to membership but who appear sceptical about the benefits or long term viability of unrestricted cross-border mobility of people in modern Europe.

Judged in economic terms, the case for free movement of labour, within or between countries, is strong since mobility of workers has compellingly positive aspects.

From the point of view of efficiency in production, free movement allows workers to migrate to where their skills are most useful. If particular industries are geographically concentrated or face local skill shortages then they can recruit labour from a wider area. If workers have talents which are undervalued where they live then they can move to where they can be put to better use. High wages in locations of labour shortage will offer the necessary signals to draw the migration required, allowing migrants to capture part of the social gain from improved production.

From the point of view of social protection, free movement provides insurance against locally specific labour market shocks. If demand intensifies unexpectedly in an area then labour can move in. If demand falls within an area then labour can move out. The effects of temporary disturbances are dispersed and variations in labour income are smoothed. When monetary integration of different areas removes the possibility of macroeconomic adjustment through exchange rate movements the importance of labour mobility as an adjustment mechanism is even greater.

From the point of view of growth, free movement allows ideas to spread as people move so that innovators can work close to where their ideas are most valued and innovations are therefore adopted widely. As they do so, fresh encounters generate further new ideas.

From the point of view of efficiency in public provision, free movement allows better alignment of tastes and public service levels. If individuals differ in preferences for the type or level of locally publicly provided goods then free movement allows a better matching of wants and provision. Individuals who are prepared to pay higher taxes for better services can move to localities where this is offered and those less interested can move to areas with lower provision. Public sector economists recognise this as one way that a sort of invisible hand can work to a limited extent even where goods are collectively consumed and therefore best provided through the public rather than private sector. Of course, much public provision is of privately consumed services and considerations here are more complex, as discussed below, but the point is not eliminated.

For all of these reasons, “economic migrant” has never been a pejorative term among economists. On the contrary, economic migration is seen predominantly as a force for good.

Some economic drawbacks of free movement of labour

Even outside circles of economists, considerations of this sort are taken for granted as regards migration within a country. It would be considered absurd and economically unwise to propose limitations on movement of British workers from Birmingham to London. And yet, at the supranational level, limitations on free movement within Europe are argued for and thought to attract political support.

Why? In large part, this is because the politics of migration is not about economics. Economic migration drives social change which attracts strongly different reactions from the culturally conservative and the socially liberal. Population movements are swelled by humanitarian crises which draw sympathy differently in different parts of the population.

Nonetheless, even in economic terms, free movement is not popular. Partly this may be because, despite persuasive reasons to think the better geographic distribution of labour that results is a good thing on average, not everyone gains. The principal beneficiaries are migrants themselves who move because they can earn better wages where they go to than where they come from. The picture for nonmigrants is likely to be mixed — beneficial undoubtedly for some but potentially difficult for those competing most closely with incomers or whose productivity would have benefited from the presence of outgoers. The best evidence suggests that such effects are small and probably temporary but they are what matter to the immobile and the immobile both outnumber the mobile and are politically better represented.

This is not the biggest economic issue though. Perhaps most prominent among the economic fears of what migration involves in practice is the concern that what prompts movement between countries may be exploitation of differences in generosity of welfare systems and other redistributive parts of public spending. Migrants, it is argued, arrive in richer countries to claim benefits to which they have not contributed, and to draw on health and education systems for which they have not paid.

Such problems rarely arise from movement within countries because, sensibly, redistributive functions are typically centralised. There is no different welfare system in different parts of the UK and resource allocation formulae attempt to channel funds for provision in kind fairly to different parts of the country. This is as it should be. While there can be advantages to differing local provision of goods consumed in common, as argued above, privately consumed services with a redistributive aspect cannot be decentralised without threatening to generate potentially self-defeating movement of people.  Reasons would be created for those most in need to move to the most generous areas and for those most able to pay to move away, defeating the feasibility of effective redistribution.

No similar centralisation of redistributive activities is politically feasible at the European level because insufficient cross-border social solidarity exists relative to the inequalities that would need to be addressed. So redistribution remains largely a country-level function and fears that differing national levels of generosity will prompt migration flows generate calls for limits on migration. Benefit tourism is one side of this just as tax tourism by the affluent is another; though rarely discussed together and attracting the ire of different people, they are really similar economic phenomena, just different kinds of redistribution shopping. Associated hostility to migration can cross the political spectrum. Fears that the national social solidarity that sustains what redistribution can be afforded by national governments will be undermined by free movement creates a left-wing case for concern.

These observations have some force at an abstract level. But they are no reason to pretend that the benefits to free movement detailed earlier do not exist and are not substantial at a European level. Also, their practical importance is an empirical question. To what extent do we actually see welfare-seeking labour migration? Evidence is tenuous. Migrants are, on the whole, predominantly young, well educated workers. At least in the short term and over recent years, within EU migration has, for example, benefited the UK fiscally even at a time of deficit when the average British born worker has been a fiscal burden. EU migrants to Britain are less likely to claim benefits, no more likely to use public health, no more likely to commit crime, and do not compromise the education outcomes of native speakers. This is not the full picture since that has to take account of long term implications as young migrants age and impose future costs on welfare and health services. But some of them will return to their place of origin and those who stay will raise children who will pay towards their costs so there is no obvious reason not to expect gains even considered in the long term. This positive picture is not a necessary outcome and may not be true for all receiving countries; however, the strength with which these concerns are voiced in the UK, for example, bears little relation to any strength of evidence for them.

Because concerns about welfare tourism do seem so strong, a case can be made for putting time limits on benefit claims by migrants, enforcing a minimum period of residence before migrants can draw on certain parts of benefit systems in countries of destination. What would be positive about this would be that it might assuage concern that threatens to provoke policy responses which would undermine real economic benefits. If migration is indeed not largely benefit-driven then it should do little to reduce flows. The economic cost though is that it would mean social insurance would be denied to those moving for work.

Free movement and refugees

The political threat to the future of free movement predates the current refugee crisis but has been exacerbated by it. Open borders within the Schengen area have already been temporarily suspended by countries struggling to manage the sudden size of the flows of people and doubts about whether free labour mobility is sustainable are voiced even more loudly.

Decisions about the offer of asylum are governed, or should be, by international humanitarian obligations. It is not clear that accepting refugees need in any case be economically harmful. While past effects of immigration may be a poor guide to the labour market and public finance impact since refugees’ characteristics may differ from previous flows in ways difficult to predict, there seems little reason to expect entrepreneurialism, initiative and preparedness to work to be any lower than in past inflows. The notion that the economic calculus of benefit receipt might suddenly be drawing large numbers to undertake life-threatening boat crossings so as to exploit European welfare systems also seems far-fetched.

Nonetheless the handling of short term difficulties of sudden large flows raises questions about free movement of refugees. Confining refugees to the first safe country which they reach, whatever its legal basis, ties the short term costs of receiving large numbers to accidents of geography. If those countries receiving heaviest flows in the first instance are also those facing greatest current economic difficulties then the costs are made to  bear most heavily on those least well-prepared to cope. A system of country-specific quotas is a popular idea for spreading the burden of adjustment in the short term but can only work as intended if restrictions on refugees’ subsequent mobility prevents movements which unravel the quotas.

Yet all the economic arguments made above for allowing long term free movement apply. Allowing refugees to choose to go to where they can best find work, where their skills and competences are most valued and where they expect to feel most welcome harnesses refugees’ own wish to find the best lives for themselves and their families to best economic advantage rather than letting the most alarmist economic fears drive policy.

There is an unhelpful tendency of some rhetoric to contrast refugee migration and economic migration. The suggestion that rigorous discouragement of economic migration is the only way to accommodate a welcoming policy towards those fleeing persecution should, for instance, be resisted. One is not deserving and the other undeserving, as if seeking a better life is politically tolerable only when the alternative is persecution. The potential for economic migration to promote positive outcomes should be celebrated for itself.

Ian Preston is the Deputy Director of CReAM and Professor in the Department of Economics at UCL.

Acknowledgement: This piece was published first at European Institute blog poston Free Movement 

Why Theresa May is Wrong About Immigration

Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London

When Theresa May says that "at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero" and that "there is no case, in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade," she is ignoring persuasive arguments that immigration may in many cases be economically beneficial.

Severe restrictions on migration of labor prevent businesses from looking widely for skills they need and prevent workers from moving where their labor is most valued. There is suggestive evidence that migration may promote growth through encouraging innovation, trade and entrepreneurship. While public concern over the scale of migration in recent years is undeniable, to minimize the economic benefits as May does distorts what we know about how the economy responds to immigration.

May argues that "for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further [by high immigration] while some people are forced out of work altogether." These are strong statements, not confirmed in the academic literature.

The labor market effect of immigration is in fact a subject that has been comprehensively studied in many countries over many years, and few studies have been able to pick up the sort of negative impacts that she speaks about. This is true as much in the U.K. as it is elsewhere. Evidence on newcomers to the U.K. shows that they are typically better-qualified than the British-born workforce, but nevertheless tend to work initially in less well-paid jobs, downgrading while they pick up skills specific to the new labor market.

Regional comparisons of what happens to wages at different points in the distribution suggest that it may well be in those lower parts of the wage distribution—where immigrants work in early years after arrival—that impacts on wage are felt. However, estimated effects are small and, since immigrants tend to move up the wage distribution as they stay longer in the country, these impacts are quite probably temporary. Moreover, there are counterbalancing wage gains higher up the wage distribution and the overall effect is, if anything, positive. As regards effects on employment, no convincingly robust evidence exists that employment of the British-born is harmed.

The other aspect concerns public finances and delivery of public services. Far from the effects here being "close to zero," the best evidence we have suggests that, in the decade from 2001 onwards, migrants contributed more to the public exchequer than they took out. This applies particularly to migrants from within the EU but also non-EU migrants, and this was at a time of overall fiscal deficit, when the average British-born person was contributing substantially negatively. Critics of migration often point to supposed 'welfare tourism,' but immigrants are actually less likely to claim benefits than British residents.

The Home Secretary also points to effects on specific services, claiming that "when immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it's impossible to build a cohesive society. It's difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope." The positive exchequer costs discussed above, comprehensively measured in the sense that they include estimates of burdens through use of public services, indicate that migrants' taxes more than cover the costs which they impose.

Moreover, evidence suggests that immigrants are no less healthy than the British-born and use the NHS no more frequently. Immigrants with work opportunities are not more likely to commit crime. The presence of non-English speaking children is not harmful to English-speaking children's education. Income from overseas university students is beneficial to higher education. Immigrants provide a disproportionate share of staff in much of the public sector.

There will, of course, be short-term costs of adjusting to cope with inflows of new people, but alarmism should not distract from fact that immigration is fiscally beneficial and not harmful to the public sector. In the end, politicians need to adjust public services to immigration-induced demographic change—in the case of the U.K., recent immigrants have contributed what is needed towards the cost of adjustments required.

Christian Dustmann and Ian Preston are professors of economics at University College London (UCL). Dustmann is the director of the Centre for Research and Analysis on Migration (CReAM) at UCL.

Acknowledgement: This piece was published first on Newsweek

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Analysis: The migration conversation

by  Ian Preston
What do the election manifestos say about migration? Ian Preston, professor of economics at University College London, gives his analysis.

Of the five main nationwide parties, three – UKIP, the Conservatives and Labour – emphasise in their manifestos a need to deal with the negative aspects of immigration. UKIP argues that the high inflows of the past two decades have damaged labour market prospects of the British-born and placed pressure on public services. By withdrawing from the EU, it proposes to introduce a visa system covering migration from all sources which would place a five-year moratorium on any unskilled migration and heavily restrict the numbers of visas issued for high-skilled labour.

The Conservative Party also stresses the harm to public services and re-endorses an aspiration to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. Labour, without committing itself on whether or not such concerns are justified, acknowledges a need to address public concern on labour market and public service effects. None of these propose any significant relaxation and all propose at least modest tightenings in certain respects.

By contrast, the Liberal Democrat and Green manifestos concentrate on the positive side of the free flow of people. Their policies are correspondingly modestly liberal, at least proposing to reverse some tightenings introduced by the outgoing government. Both would reintroduce some sort of post-study work visa for foreign students, scrapped in 2012. The Greens would also scrap minimum income requirements for spousal immigration, a measure brought in during 2012.

The labour market impact of immigration is something that economists have studied in depth in many countries. Little persuasive evidence has emerged to support a picture of adverse effects on average wages or on employment, either in the UK or elsewhere. Economies appear to have many ways to adapt to absorb changes in the size and composition of the labour force without native employment or average wages needing to suffer. Immigrants to the UK are typically young and well-educated but nonetheless work, at least in the early years after arrival, towards the lower end of the wage distribution. If there are any negative effects on wages, they are probably felt here, albeit that such effects if they exist are small and probably temporary. Some of the manifestos do show particular keenness to address effects on the least well paid.

Immigrants make use of public services and rapid changes in numbers may involve costs of adjustment. However, evidence suggests that immigrants use public health services no more intensively than natives, that the presence of non-English speaking children in schools does not hinder education of native children and that immigration is unassociated with increases in crime. Nor do immigrants draw heavily on welfare benefits; on the contrary, recent immigrants are less likely to claim than natives. Empirical support for the idea of extensive welfare tourism is tenuous.

What immigrants do do is pay taxes and they do so to an extent that means that, broadly considered, the net fiscal contribution of immigrants since the turn of the century has almost surely been positive, particularly in regards to immigrants from within Europe but also those from outside. This is at a time when there have been large public deficits. From the point of view of public finance, immigration therefore helps relieve the burden of public service provision rather than adding to it. Of course, over time, young and healthy immigrants will age and draw more heavily on the public sector, but some will return to their place of origin and those who stay will raise children who will help pay for their needs.

These are not the only economic effects of immigration. Suggestive evidence from the US and elsewhere points to the positive contribution free movement can make to innovation, trade and entrepreneurship. None of these issues figure in the discussion within the manifestos but their importance is possibly greater than any of the feared labour market or public service provision effects which do seem to concern the parties.

It is understandable that immigration can give rise to public concern because its problematic aspects may be the most immediately visible. When an immigrant, say, takes a job that might have gone to someone British-born or sits ahead of someone British-born in the wait to see a doctor, this is more easily observed than when the same immigrant creates demand for work by spending their income or helps fund public services by paying their taxes. Failing to address public concern may leave it to grow and will encourage public disillusionment.

Nonetheless, if one looks at opinion survey data, not only in the UK but across Europe, then one has to doubt whether economic issues are at the root of most public disquiet. Although it is the older, less educated voters – those arguably most vulnerable to labour market competition or most dependent on public services – who are least accepting of immigration, the strongest associations with attitudes to immigration are not with opinions about its economic consequences but with responses to its cultural and social impact.

Acknowledgement: This piece was published first at The Geographical.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Here’s where Britain’s political parties stand (and fall down) on immigration

by Ian Preston

Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London

Immigration clearly ranks as one of the most important issues for voters in the lead up to the UK’s election. But public opinion doesn't always match up with the evidence, and political parties can be led in different directions by both. With this in mind, the following takes stock of the different policies about immigration, as outlined in the parties' manifestos.

Where do they stand?

UKIP makes the strongest claims about immigration causing harm. The Conservative and Labour manifestos also tend to emphasise the negatives of immigration, real or perceived.

Labour says the number of low-skilled immigrants is too high and points to no high-skilled categories where they’d welcome increase. Both the Conservatives and UKIP want migration to be lower overall. In their 2010 manifesto, the Conservatives proposed to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands – a “goal” which the coalition government dramatically missed. This time around, the party refers only to an “ambition”.

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party stress the benefits of immigration. Both parties propose more open policies, such as the restoration of post-study work visas for students and – in the case of the Greens – the abolition of minimum income requirements for the entry of spouses. The Greens are the most thoughtful on the global context, but their openness toward immigration is tempered by some scepticism toward immigration for business reasons or by the more affluent, citing worries about impacts on small businesses and house prices.

Among parties standing only in some parts of the UK, the SNPPlaid Cymru and the Alliance Party are all fairly liberal, and concerned with the regional suitability of immigration criteria. Of the Northern Irish parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party support immigration in moderation, while the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Féin are more or less silent on the matter.

An EU issue

UKIP’s approach is the most innovative and the most restrictive. The party wants to make sharp cuts to levels of immigration; an approach which is tied to their core proposal of withdrawing from the EU. Instead, the party wants to establish a points-based system which treats Commonwealth migrants comparably to European ones.

The Conservatives tie the issue of migration to a renegotiation of the terms of EU membership, as do the UUP. These parties question whether free movement meets the needs of established EU members. On the other hand, the SDLP’s positive comments on “free flow of people” within the EU is as close as the party comes to discussing immigration.

EU withdrawal is advocated also by several parties outside the mainstream whose manifestos talk at length about immigration. The Communist Party and Socialist Labour Party on the left, for example, regard the EU as an organisation promoting capitalist interests at workers' expense. Both propose immigration policies outside the EU with humanitarian emphasis. The Socialist Labour Party propose a policy of zero net migration with priority for Commonwealth immigrants. For the English Democrats on the right, withdrawal not only from the EU but from a wide range of international agreements is regarded as essential to regaining full border control.

Boon, or burden on benefits?

For several parties, concerns about immigration from the EU focus on migrant benefit claims. Yet evidence suggests there is little reason to consider this a serious problem, and that restricting entitlements is unlikely therefore to discourage immigration.

The Conservatives, Labour, UKIP and DUP all want to delay receipt of benefits by migrants in various ways. The Conservative and Labour manifestos propose to rule out payment of child benefit for children abroad. This will raise issues with EU law, whether renegotiating terms of the UK’s EU membership or not.

Stresses on public services are a prominent theme in the Conservative, Labour and UKIP manifestos alike. The Conservatives propose a fund to alleviate such pressures, which bears similarities to a fund scrapped early in the last parliament.

The best evidence suggests that migrants pay taxes which more than cover the cost of benefits received, in cash or in kind. The net contribution of migrants should alleviate the cost of providing public services.

Where’s the evidence?

Costs imposed by migrants on the NHS are mentioned by the Conservatives, and are repeatedly emphasised in UKIP’s discussion of immigration. In fact, immigrants are typically healthier than natives on arrival, becoming more like them the longer they stay, and make similar use of health services.

Nonetheless, UKIP would require that most migrants arrive with private insurance. Unsurprisingly, the issue is also prominent for the National Health Action party. It proposes that stronger efforts be made to recover the costs of treating migrants, but opposes refusing treatment to anyone on ethical, economic and medical grounds.

Crime is another issue raised by Conservatives, Labour and UKIP in relation to immigration. In fact, evidence suggests migration is unassociated with changes in crime rates.

Housing also figures in some manifestos. The Conservative party worry about use of social housing, and UKIP about housing shortages. The Greens, on the other hand, worry about richer migrants pushing up house prices. Research on migration and housing is still developing, but evidence does not point to strong upward pressure on house prices.

Revival of student opportunity

UKIP alone discusses the burden which immigration imposes on schools. Such a burden might simply arise from growing numbers, or it might follow from the difficulty of educating children of mixed backgrounds together. The international evidence on the latter is ambiguous, but negative effects of high proportions of non-native speakers in the classroom on the performance of British-born children seems to be ruled out.

Instead, the treatment of foreign university students is the biggest issue linking education and migration. Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Labour promise crackdowns on bogus institutions.

UKIP and the Lib Dems pledge to separate students in official statistics. Since the Lib Dems are not proposing to base targets on such statistics, the point of this is unclear. For UKIP, who do want to keep immigration down, but are not so averse to students, it makes more sense to exclude students from the count.

The most significant proposal here is reintroduction of the post-study work route, abolished under the current government, whereby students are permitted to work for two years after completing study. The Greens promise unconditional restoration, Plaid and the SNP propose restoration for students in Wales or Scotland, and the Lib Dems propose a reintroduction specifically for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates.

STEM students have been shown to be particularly associated) with innovation, trade and entrepreneurship – issues which are largely absent from the discussion about migration in any manifesto.

Little effect on labour

cap on skilled immigration would be retained by Conservative, Labour and UKIP. Indeed, UKIP would put a five-year moratorium on any unskilled immigration whatsoever, and restrict skilled immigration to 50,000 visas per year. By way of comparison, about 221,000 highly skilled non-student migrants are estimated to have entered the UK for work in the three years prior to 2013.

Evidence on how immigration affects average wages and employment finds no significant adverse effects. If there are labour market effects, then they hit workers on the lowest wages. The Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens all propose crackdowns on exploitation, through new legislation or greater monitoring.

Questions of language proficiency appear in the manifestos of Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens. The emphasis shifts from testing migrants' English to offering English lessons, as the tone of the manifesto becomes more liberal.

Regional differences

To the extent that labour market restrictions are set nationally, they may be inappropriate for the demands of particular regionsPlaid, the SNP and the Alliance Party (in Northern Ireland) all call for greater regional sensitivity of policy in various respects, and complain about policies set to suit the south of England. But the unionist parties of Northern Ireland make no similar calls, and the nationalist parties of Northern Ireland say nothing on the issue.

One respect in which policy may be regionally discriminatory is nationally set income thresholds for family union, which may hurt families more in lower income regions. Some suggest such policies are intrinsically unjust. Plaid proposes a review; the Greens would drop the policy altogether. The Conservatives alone propose a toughening, while UKIP worries about sham marriages.

Full exit checksfrequently promised and already partly delivered, are proposed by Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP. Labour and UKIP both promise to expand border staff.

Protecting the persecuted

All main parties except the Conservatives reaffirm support for protecting victims of persecution. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens would end indefinite detention. The Lib Dems and the Greens go further, advocating allowing asylum seekers to work.

For those whose asylum claims fail, the Greens suggest a review of legal status, while the Lib Dems would abolish the Azure card system. The Greens want applicability of legal aid to immigration and asylum work extended.

Acknowledgement: This piece was published first at The Conversation.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Manifesto Check: Lib Dems take a more liberal approach to immigration

by Ian Preston

Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London.

When asked about immigration in the recent leaders' debate, Nick Clegg sought to draw a distinction between “good” and “bad” immigration. The Liberal Democrat manifesto does not try to push this distinction. Immigration is presented as primarily a good thing. The party believes in Britain as an “open, trading nation”, “within the European Union and beyond” and celebrates openness to “visitors who boost our economy”, “migrant workers who play a vital role in business and public services” and “refugees fleeing persecution”.

Although the Liberal Democrats were part of a coalition that has tightened immigration policy in several ways, in its manifesto, the party positions itself to push for a relatively liberal approach to future decision making.

A liberal approach

The post-study work visa – which allowed graduates of UK universities to stay and work for up to two years – was removed by the coalition government. Some commentators have called for its restoration. Although the party does not propose to fully reopen the route, its manifesto does contain a proposal to reintroduce a post-study work visa specifically for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates, if work is found within six months of their degree.

Popular opinion tends to be relatively welcoming to students as immigrants. And there is evidence from the US that foreign-born STEM students in particular may contribute significantly to innovation, productivity growth and wages in the country they migrate to.

High-skilled immigration from outside the European Union is currently capped. The party commits itself to “continue to allow high-skilled immigration to support key sectors,” but there is no specific word on what will happen to the cap.

More broadly, there is no mention of a target for overall net numbers of migrants coming to the country. The manifesto does pledge that students will be separated within official statistics. But it is difficult to see the purpose of this suggestion if the number is not to be subject to a target, given that the official statistics – which are prepared to international standards – already distinguish students.

The English language skills of immigrants are mentioned as pertinent to employment prospects, and to schools. Language assessments are proposed for new claimants of the Jobseekers Allowance. English lessons are to be encouraged for parents, where schools have high proportions of pupils with English as a second language.

Better treatment for asylum seekers

Several reforms to the treatment of asylum seekers are announced. Indefinite detention is to be ended. The manifesto also promises to abandon the Azure card scheme, which restricts where and how refused asylum seekers can spend their weekly allowance, and effectively requires them to identify themselves as such when they do.

There are also changes to asylum seekers' rights to work. Typically, asylum seekers are not allowed to work, unless their case has lasted over a year through no fault of their own. The justification for the current policy is supposedly “to protect local labour markets”. But this seems weak, given that there is no more reason to think refugee migration should be harmful to local employment or wages than economic migration. The manifesto promises, not only to allow asylum seekers to work after six months, but to require work to be sought as a condition of benefit receipt. In light of the evidence, this seems sensible.

Not a problem

Rather than characterising immigration itself as a problem, the manifesto pledges to “tackle weaknesses” in the immigration system, which threaten to “undermine confidence” in it. The party proposes inspections, efficiency improvements and reviews aimed at restoring faith in the system.

Fears about the effects of immigration on the labour market and on public services feature prominently in assessments of public attitudes. Yet there are reasons to doubt how well-founded such fears are.

In the manifesto, there is no discussion – let alone endorsement – of such concerns, but there is a proposal for annual assessment of skill and labour market shortfalls and surpluses, impact on the economy, public services and communities. Such assessments are already regularly carried out by the Migration Advisory Committee. The manifesto proposes to make them annual, and to put them at the centre of a presentation to parliament.

There are also promises to ensure tougher policing of abuses of the system in both education and work. But these are not at all specific in the case of educational institutions, and simply described as a doubling of inspections to check for compliance with employment law in the case of employers.

Further proposed changes to the system appear to be mainly administrative. The party pledges to ensure fast processing of work, tourist and family visas and of asylum claims, but does not provide any details about how they are to be achieved, and at what cost.

The promise to restore full exit checks has been frequently made by many parties, and large steps have already been made to implement it.

Except for a call for the speedy issue of visas, there is no discussion of changes to policy on family migration.

Acknowledgement: This piece was published first at The Conversation.

Manifesto Check: Labour’s immigration policies are led by public opinion, not evidence

by Ian Preston

Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London.

Labour’s commitment to controlling immigration had already been made clear by its announcement as one of Labour’s five election pledges. But the party’s manifesto goes further to explain the policies, and how they would be implemented.

The party declares that it wishes to “look outward”, while recognising “public anxiety” and the people’s need “to feel secure in the strength of our borders.” The manifesto identifies specific public concerns, such as effects on wages, public services and “our shared way of life”. Public anxiety is undeniable, and according to research, social concerns may be more significant than economic ones.

No view is advanced by Labour as to whether these concerns are well-founded: research suggests that economic concerns, for example, are not. The evidence fails to point persuasively to any adverse impact on average wages or employment. As regards public finances, research shows that recent immigrants both contribute more in taxes than they withdraw in calls on public services and provide much of the staffing for some parts of the public sector.

Restricting immigration might assuage public concern, but it could also fail to achieve gains in average wages, and lead to less healthy public finances.

Different types of immigrants

Public opinion distinguishes between different types of immigrants. For example, the British public tends to be more positive about students, highly-skilled migrants and close family members, than about low-skilled economic migrants, extended family members, refugees and those who enter or stay in the country illegally.

Labour’s manifesto promises to mildly tighten, or to maintain the tightness of, restrictions on unpopular forms of migration. Although the party mentions some of the benefits of some forms of immigration – such as overseas students – it does not make any proposals to relax restrictions for these groups.

The manifesto claims that under a Labour government, immigration by serious criminals will be more strongly policed. Inevitably, immigrants include some people who will commit crimes and some people who will be victims of crimes. But many studies in a number of countries have failed to find a convincing association between migration flows and crime rates.

Labour also plans to crack down on the abuse of short-term student visas, although how this policy will differ to the kind of tightening that has already been pursued is unclear. There is a risk of discouragement to innovation from limiting graduate recruitment and the party welcomes the contributions of overseas students, but there are no explicit proposals for changes to terms of entry for this group (such as reviving a post-study work route).

Labour’s manifesto criticises the Conservatives for undermining public trust by committing to a target that was not met. The party makes no commitment to any defined number or cap on overall immigration, and there is therefore no discussion about which types of immigrants should be considered in any target. But the party does state a view that low skilled migration “needs to come down” and does commit to retaining the cap on migration for workers from outside the EU, currently set at a little over 20 thousand for employer-sponsored skilled migrants.

The European issue

In its section on Europe, the manifesto promises to “secure reforms to immigration and social security rules, as well as pushing for stronger transitional controls”. Evidence that welfare tourism is a serious problem is actually slim, so the extent to which this might substantially discourage European migration is doubtful. Nevertheless, the party pledges to revoke the right to send child benefits abroad, and promises to implement a two-year delay on benefit receipt for EU migrants.

The implementation of such policies would face issues of compatibility with EU law. As a result, how easy these changes are to implement will depend on the extent to which they are regarded as inhibiting freedom of movement for work, and on the negotiating abilities of a Labour government within the EU.

Labour also promises to protect low wages against exploitative immigration, with bans on recruitment agencies hiring exclusively from abroad, and an extension of Gangmaster Licensing law (which currently covers only agriculture and food processing). It is true that the strongest evidence of any negative effects of immigration on wages occurs at the bottom end of the distribution, so this measure seems appropriately targeted.

Alongside these proposed tightenings, there are also administrative changes. The party commits itself to full checks on exits, a promise frequently made by different parties over the past decade and already partially implemented. In principle, if realised, this should improve monitoring of net migration numbers. More border staff are promised, financed by a charge on non-visa visitors of a small – but unspecified – magnitude.

There are some proposals to address rights and welfare of migrants. There is a promise to end indefinite detention, and to end detention altogether for pregnant women and victims of trafficking and abuse. Labour pledges to provide refuge to genuine victims of persecution, but there is no explicit commitment to numbers. The UK currently does less than its EU neighbours in terms of sheltering Syrian refugees.

There is no mention of any change to rules on family migration.

Acknowledgement: This piece was published first at The Conversation.