‘370,000 Migrants on the dole’ shouts the normally restrained Daily Telegraph’s front page today. A claim that – as the Today programme pointed out – stands up to little scrutiny. These are ‘migrants’ that in many cases are now British citizens. Only two percent of the group were found to be claiming benefits illegally. Of course, as Chris Grayling reminded the British public, a minority of this 370,000 remain (ominously) ‘unaccounted for’. His main claim appears to be that the current Government have redressed a grievous gap by successfully attempting to cross-check benefit claimants’ nationalities.
I have no reason to question the methodologies used in either report. But I think the way in which these migration statistics have been publicly reported speaks to a very dangerous narrowing of the UK migration debate. Not because the MAC report – with its positive result – overshadowed the other. But because the MAC report was far more ambiguous than this headline figure of ’23 displaced’ suggests.
I’ve read the report. All 146 pages. The authors are fully aware of the ambiguities – and in the case of migrants’ use of public services or impact on crime rates the near impossibility – involved in trying to carry out an “impact assessment”. Their figures are presented cautiously, with caveats. The 23 ‘fewer native people employed’ figure is referred to from the beginning (page 2) as a ‘ballpark estimate’. This is not to suggest that we should not try to measure impact: but simply to acknowledge that measuring social and economic impacts is a process fraught with assumptions and questions of methodology. Our media gatekeepers, however, narrow this down into a single line.
But why that line, when there are some other, equally tentative and equally startling figures in the report? For instance ‘there is some evidence to suggest that positive net migration through the [points based system] may in fact reduce overall rates of crime in the UK’. More migrants, fewer criminals? How’s that for a tabloid headline? Or perhaps the assessment – first released in June, but repeated again in the report
– that the impact of new student visa restrictions will be a cost of £2.4bn to the economy? And that assumes an 80% replacement rate from UK and EU students, which is quite a significant leap of faith.
More seriously, this fixation on statistics turns our migration conversation into one circling around numbers not values. This is dangerous, because it deflects attention away from far more fundamental shifts in government thinking, in two ways.
First, focusing on migration and the impact of foreign labour and “benefit tourists” encourages the public to direct their energy towards keeping migrants out, rather than questioning social policies that will see all access to social welfare greatly reduced in the coming years. It also provides an “easy” solution to the employment problem: fewer migrants. Yet even if 23 British workers are displaced with every hundred non-EU migrants, this figure is an association. There is no proven causal link. And it only holds in times of economic recession, not in times of economic growth, making the relationship between general unemployment levels and migration still more complex. Those likely to be affected – as the report discusses – are most likely to be low-skilled and poorly-educated workers. Given the realities of global economics, we should be focusing on this skills gap, this failure of the state to provide for its citizens the opportunities to move beyond low-skill work. An unwritten implication of this report is that it is not of great account if the UK’s low-paid low-skilled workers remain low-paid and low-skilled.
This leads to a further question. Who qualifies as a (privileged) “UK worker”? The report is premised on the notion that in measuring the impact of migration we must measure only the benefits that accrue to the total benefit of the UK resident population. Perhaps that in itself is not controversial: but it opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions relating to belonging, citizenship and identity. When does a migrant become a resident? The Daily Telegraph’s story is a nastier example of the same question, but reframed with the clear implication that migrants – even newly naturalized British citizens – do not deserve the full entitlements of citizenship.
But how slippery a slope. In focusing on numbers and not on labels, we run the risk of tacitly endorsing a rationale of permanent segregation between “foreigner” and “native”. In fact, this is exactly where government thinking is heading. A recent government consultation paper
proposes to make not only migration – but also permanent settlement – much harder. Even if we allow them to come, we will not permit them to belong. Quite apart from questions of global justice, how can such a tactic of separation – removing incentives for social and cultural interaction – address the British public’s anxieties about integration?
The migration debate will roll on, no doubt, trading statistics. But it seems to me that in setting the contours for debate so narrowly, we risk accepting without much meaningful debate at all a citizenship vastly diminished in terms of both equity and entitlements. This – not the number of foreign-born citizens exercising their right to the support of their state – is the real scandal.