By David Smith in THE TIMES, 24 April 2019

A bit of a debate has been running on Twitter about the extent to which the vote to leave the European Union was driven by immigration. It is unresolved: most of the evidence suggests that immigration was a key factor, but far from the only one, in producing a small majority in favour of Brexit.

Certainly, “taking back control” was interpreted by many as reducing the flow of foreigners. It was a pivotal moment during the campaign when the Office for National Statistics released figures showing that net migration — long-term inflows minus long-term outflows — in 2015 had hit a record of 333,000.

As a vote influencer, it appeared to rank up there with Harold Wilson and the bad trade figures caused by the arrival of a “couple of jumbo jets” in the run-up to his 1970 election defeat to the Tories under Edward Heath.

Some of us pointed out that using Brexit to tackle immigration was an odd way of going about things — “This will hurt me more than it hurts you” — and unlikely to work, particularly if the aim was to get net migration down into the tens of thousands. This was because non-EU net migration has always exceeded EU migration. The net inflows that the government had control of, in other words, were always greater than the flows we could “take back control of”. Some of that net migration, both EU and non-EU, consists of students and some argue persuasively that they should be taken out of the figures, but it is a bit late for that.

So it has proved in the past three years. Next month we will get net migration figures for 2018. The latest, for the 12 months to the end of September, showed net migration of 283,000, down on that 2015 record but not by much and nowhere near the tens of thousands. EU net migration has fallen because of the weak pound, uncertainty over the future status of EU citizens and because they no longer feel welcome and at 57,000 was less than a third of its peak. Non-EU migration has made up most of the difference and at 261,000 in the latest 12 months was the highest since 2004.

A useful set of papers to be published in this week’s quarterly economic review from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research offers some guidance. Anne Green, who looks at low-skilled labour, says that employers, notably in sectors such as social care, hospitality, food processing, warehousing and construction, have usually chosen EU workers out of necessity. Attracting young UK nationals into these jobs has proven difficult. Employers face a choice of making these jobs more attractive to British workers or automating the jobs now done by EU workers out of existence. In some sectors, such as social care, this is easier said than done.

The authors take issue with the migration advisory committee’s argument, which informed the white paper, that low-skilled migration should be discouraged because of the lower or even negative fiscal contribution of such workers. They point out that not only are shortages of low-skilled workers acute but they play a critical role in many sectors. Also EU workers, who are often over-qualified for the low-skilled jobs they first take on, typically move into medium and high-skilled roles.

Fewer EU workers are available to take on low-paid, low-skill work
Fewer EU workers are available to take on low-paid, low-skill work

Is it possible to combine the need that employers have for migrant labour, particularly EU workers, with public attitudes, which appear to be driven by a desire to reduce immigration? Research presented in the review by Heather Rolfe, Johnny Runge and Nathan Hudson-Sharp, drawing on their own survey and focus group research, shows that voters are not against immigrants who make “a contribution”, economic or social, but are against those “attracted to the UK to claim benefits or to commit crime”.

EU workers, as noted, make a net fiscal contribution — paying more in taxes than they take out in public services and benefits — but during the current decade that contribution was nullified by austerity, allowing the narrative to develop that EU migrants were a drain on public services.

It is good if, as the research shows, people have a balanced view of immigration. As far as migrants from the EU are concerned, however, that bird has flown. The NIESR research concludes: “It seems inevitable that, even with relatively liberal immigration policies, the UK will become a less popular destination for EU citizens.” For employers, that will mean a significant challenge. EU migrants have filled important gaps in the workforce, helping to lift employment rates to record levels and contributing to the UK’s successful and flexible labour market. The times are changing.

David Smith is Economics Editor of The Sunday Times