THE BLOG

The Toxic Nature of the Debate on Immigration

31/12/2013 10:39 GMT | Updated 01/03/2014 10:59 GMT

It seems clear that the heated debate on immigration will last at least until the 2015 elections - driven by the popularity of UKIP and the panic in the other Parties not to be seen soft on immigration.

Another thing seems clear - the debate will seldom be objective or rational with virtually no claim too silly to be believed by someone.

According to a recent headline in the Mail - 'This worryingly crowded Isle: England is officially Europe's most densely packed Country' the author goes on to tell us that by 2046 we will have a population density of 494 people per square kilometer compared to 415 now - using phrases like 'crammed in' and 'squeezed in every square kilometer' - all this because of immigration! This fits in with other often made claims that the Country is overflowing and there is no more physical space left - often used in relation to the immigration debate.

This is nonsense - the vast majority of England is virtually empty of people and the majority of the population live in the relatively small urban areas.

According to some 2011 mapping research - most people live in urban areas in England and these areas account for only 10.6% of the Country. Of this only 2 to 3% is actually built on - the rest being gardens and green spaces.

There may be a good argument for saying that that is too much - that the 10.6% (or 2 to 3% actually built on) figure is too high and that we should be careful not to urbanise more of the countryside- but that is a separate and more reasonable argument that doesn't need the childishly exaggerated claims about the entire Country being overwhelmed by foreigners.

The density of London's population, for instance, is currently 5100 people per square kilometer - which in part accounts for why so much of England is still green.

Talking about percentages and square kilometers may be pedantic but this debate effects how people treat each other in this Country and words matter. Suddenly we live in a Country which cannot take even one Syrian refugee and that all we hear about is the damage foreigners do.

Will immigration be the sole cause of the increase anyway? Figures recently released by the Office for National Statistics suggest that 43% of the increase in UK population over the next 25 years will be directly attributable to immigration - so any claim that immigration will be entirely to blame is not true either.

That 43% of any increase in population is because of immigration should be debated - but this is not the same as saying immigration is the only cause. Our population is going to get bigger one way or another and we have to make rational decisions about that.

Another issue often missing from this debate is the wealth immigrants bring. There are the predictions that the UK will overtake Germany and France to become Europe's wealthiest country by GDP by 2030 - fueled at least in part by immigration! Germany's population will shrink over that time and ours is predicted to increase to 80 million partly by more babies being born and partly by immigration.

Overall immigration brings in wealth - so says the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - immigrants bring in £7 billion more than they cost and that too should be part of the debate. There is also evidence that immigrants are more economically active and more highly qualified than the general population.

Immigration is obviously putting strain on some services in parts of the UK where populations suddenly increase and put strains on local services.

People living in these areas are entitled to be concerned and it is not racist to have a view about policies that have such a profound impact on where you live. But will the irrational nature of this debate get in the way of objective decision making to address these problems?

There is some evidence that immigration does displace some UK workers from jobs. According to a report from the Migration Advisory Committee around 32,000 jobs per year were lost to non-EU immigrants between 2005 and 2010 - but that would be a small percentage of the 2.39 million currently unemployed in the UK. The report also suggests that this effect is not long lasting. Easy to say when you have a job of course but many people would put the effect of immigration on jobs much higher than that without any evidence.

Of course an increase in GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is not necessarily a measure of how better off individual citizens are - it is a measure of the total production of the Country. What matters more is how the money is distributed - but we have to have the money before we can distribute it.

Immigration brings benefits in terms of wealth and energy to the UK but it seems that we will sacrifice our future wealth and opportunities just to be seen toughest on immigrants and suddenly even one refugee from a war zone is too many.

Claims that the Country will soon be overflowing with immigrants won't help us as a Country in the long term - but it sells newspapers I suppose.