Immigration, Home Office statistics and a catastrophic cover-up of 300,000 foreign workers
By ANTHONY BROWNE –
Last updated at 00:03am on 31st October 2007
How do you accidentally lose a city the size of Nottingham? Or three cities the size of Cambridge? You might think it would be impossible to misplace 300,000 people; that not even the blind could fail to see such a mass of humanity.
But not if you are the Home Office, the guardian of our country's borders, whose institutional incompetence makes anything possible.
Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has apologised to the nation for underestimating the number of foreign workers in Britain by a third of a million.
Blunder: Ministers admitted that they have miscounted the number of foreign workers in the UK by more than 300,000
Just a few weeks ago, the Government said there were 800,000 more foreign workers in the UK than when Labour came to power in
1997. But yesterday it admitted there were actually 1.1 million and former Labour minister Frank Field claimed that the true figure was actually 1.6 million.
The Home Secretary had hoped to soften the blow about the incorrect figures by boasting that 2.7m new jobs had been created since Labour came to power and that most of them had gone to British workers. But the Government was then forced to issue a 'clarification' admitting that 52 per cent of the jobs had gone to immigrants.
At stake in this day of confusion is not just trust in government figures – most of us already realise there are lies, damned lies and Home Office statistics – but also the economic basis upon which the Government justifies mass immigration.
It is already widely believed that the Government has lost control of the immigration system – although in fact it never had any control to lose.
If the Government can't even count something as basic as the number of people it is letting in to work, what chance is there that anything else it says on immigration has more than a passing resemblance to reality?
What about far more complicated issues – such as the economic contribution of the 800,000 (whoops, 1.1 million) foreign workers it has let in?
A few weeks ago, the Home Office produced a paper claiming that immigrant workers contribute 6bn a year to the economy. This was widely reported as fact by those in many parts of the media who wished it to be true, despite the figure being as full of holes as Britain's borders.
Those of us who have been paying close attention to Home Office reports have learnt that it has form on this issue. Its claims have more to do with political expedience than objective reality.
This is the same Home Office which produced a convenient report a few years ago claiming that only 5,000 to 13,000 people a year would come from Eastern Europe after eight former communist countries joined the EU.
Between half a million and a million workers later – unsurprisingly, no one knows exactly how many – the Home Office admitted it had made a mistake there, too.
This fits another pattern – the Government has consistently underestimated the scale of immigration, while downplaying its drawbacks and hyping its benefits.
A few years ago, I was accused on Newsnight of scaremongering when I said that at current rates of immigration Britain's population would swell from 60 million to 68 million.
Last week, the government statistical agency predicted immigration would swell the population to more than 70 million – ten new cities the size of Manchester to shoehorn into this island.
And yes, given past form, even that is likely to be an underestimate. For, in moments of honesty, which occasionally happen, Home Office ministers have admitted they haven't a clue how many more thousands are in Britain illegally.
This isn't a surprise, because while the Government barely counts people in, it makes no attempt at all to count people out: it abolished exit controls.
It now admits 300,000 foreign students a year to study in Britain (boosting university finances), but without the faintest idea of how many leave when they are meant to. Perhaps nearly all of them. Perhaps few of them. We just don't know – and nor does the Home Secretary.
It is this extraordinary incompetence – and devil-may-care attitude to statistics – which has helped destroy public faith in the immigration system. Most people have reached the only feasibly rational conclusion: even if this Government wanted to control immigration, it simply couldn't.
So we should treat with particular scepticism the Government's two announcements yesterday. First it said it wanted to extend the transitional controls on Bulgarian and Romanian workers taking up jobs here.
But these newest EU citizens already have the right to come to the UK without a visa and live here permanently. With the Government having no idea of who is working here illegally – and having an overwhelming reluctance to enforce the laws on black-market working – any Romanian or Bulgarian who comes here and happens to take up a job really has little to fear.
And then the Government announced (or rather, reannounced) a new points system for immigration, to ensure that only those who really have something to contribute to Britain are let in.
It is a noble aim – we do need to differentiate between those who have something to add and those who don't. But without basic border controls, and action against illegal working, any such plan will be about as successful as trying to legislate for sunny weather.
The Government boasts it is based on the Australian system, but Australia does actually manage its migration, rather than talk about it.
Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, accused David Cameron of inflammatory talk and having no firm policies on immigration. But it is the Government that has been using the language of the British National Party ('British jobs for British workers' is just the latest) while presiding over the utter destruction of public confidence in the immigration system.
In contrast, David Cameron's first speech on immigration on Monday was a model of moderation – he went as far as slapping down journalists who used such emotive phrases as 'explosive population growth'.
The Government's claim that immigrant workers are adding 6bn a year to the economy is an attempt to reassure the public that, while it may have lost control, there is nothing to worry about: it is all for the general good.
The report declared, to universal acclamation in the liberal media, that immigration has 'clear economic benefits' for Britain. But that study has the same credibility as all the other Home Office studies. Or indeed the Beano comic.
Read past the glowing summaries and in fact it is noticeable that the report fails to produce any evidence of the “clear economic benefits” of immigration.
Ministers have repeatedly said that we need young immigrants to do the work to pay the pensions of our ageing society, but the study concludes: “There are no published estimates of the direct impact of immigration on the shortfall in pension funding in the UK.'”
The report says immigration boosts economic growth by 0.5 per cent a year, which is where it gets the 6bn figure from. But it also admits that immigration is boosting the population by about 0.5 per cent a year. That means that GDP per capita – the measure of wealth that really matters – is pretty much unaffected by immigration.
Immigrants produce more, and they consume more, but the native population, on average, sees little overall benefit. The report coyly admits 'there is no quantitative evidence available of the impact of immigration on GDP per head'.
In other words, the government study can find no evidence that immigration is making us richer as a country. It does, however, cite evidence that those on high wages do well out of immigration, while those on low wages are made poorer by it.
Labour supporters have a right to wonder why a Labour government is pursuing a policy whose main impact is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Immigration can certainly be a force for good – but only if it is properly controlled; you distinguish between those who have something to add and those who don't; and the public have confidence in the system. On all three counts, the Government has failed.
Anthony Browne is director of Policy Exchange.