Immigration (EAC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:17 pm on 14th November 2008.

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Photo of Lord Moser Lord Moser Crossbench 1:17 pm, 14th November 2008

My Lords, I will confine myself to two aspects of the report: the state of our migration statistics and the committee's central macro conclusion that the economic impact of immigration was extremely limited—near zero. Given the limit of the empirical evidence available to the committee, and the state of our migration statistics, I must say that I felt surprised that it felt able to come to such a firm, negative conclusion, and I remain unconvinced by it.

First, I have a more general point. Perhaps it was inevitable that the committee confined itself to the economic impacts of immigration—it is, after all, the Economic Affairs Committee. The trouble is that we all know that the non-economic issues are at least as important. One has only to think of all the social implications and impacts—social cohesion, diversity, cultural influences, and so forth—all, incidentally, with their own economic implications. We cannot forget that countless immigrants come here for totally non-economic reasons—I will resist the temptation to talk about my own past as an immigrant—but many of us would argue, myself included, that the non-economic benefits or losses are every bit as crucial in drawing up a balance sheet of pros and cons. To try to isolate the purely economic aspects, however dictated by the terms of reference of the committee, is bound to be unsatisfactory both for public consumption and for policy-making.

The trouble is that this key limitation of the report—self-imposed and probably inevitable—coupled with its conclusions on the little economic impact, encouraged that rather slanted reception in the media. There was massive coverage, much of it with headlines such as, "Migration has brought zero benefit", and "We must cap migration". Another, from the FT, was that, "Peers reject economic benefits of immigration". Perhaps that is not exactly what the committee wanted to convey, but it was an inevitable interpretation in the public arena. I quote the committee's central point and central conclusion at macro level:

"The overall conclusion from existing evidence is that immigration has very small impacts on GDP per capita, whether these impacts are positive or negative".

What is the relevance of GDP as a yardstick? The committee was of course right in arguing that using GDP, which is simply a growth indicator that does not take account of population change, is misleading. If GDP was to be used at all, ideally it had to be used per head of the resident population. I do not quarrel with that, but I do quarrel with using GDP at all. There are many flaws in it, but, in the interests of time, I shall confine myself to two. First, immigrants, as we all agree, fall into many different categories in regard to skill, age, sex and purpose in coming here—economic or non-economic. To lump them all into a single group is too blunt to be helpful. Secondly, and even more important, any economic impact is likely to be long term, perhaps very long term. That is much too complex to capture in analysis, and a focus on the short-term impacts on growth of a certain number of immigrants at this time, or even in this decade, is much too crude to be helpful.

So I end up having very little confidence in any conclusions based on GDP, even per head. The problem with that view, which I feel strongly, is that it applies as much to the committee's own conclusion as it does to any government interpretation. The committee's conclusion that there is very little impact is no more sustainable than the more ambitious interpretation by government. I noticed that the views of the academics who gave evidence, including a number of distinguished economists, and of other witnesses from the business world, for example, were not sufficiently of a single mind to justify the committee's final and crucial view, which has already been quoted, that,

"immigration has very small impacts on GDP per capita, whether these impacts are positive or negative".

In my view, this conclusion went beyond available empirical evidence.

What is uncontroversial is the rest of that same recommendation, that the Government should initiate research in this area in view of the paucity of evidence. There are so many areas in which research is needed that I do not have time to talk about them, but research on the impact of migration should take the wider view that I have encouraged—non-economic as well as economic—and involve not just government activity but also the academic community here and abroad.

Finally, I will say a word about immigration statistics. The committee was clearly and understandably hampered on this score. It stressed:

"There is a clear and urgent need to improve the data and information about gross and net migration flows to and from the UK, and about the size, geographical distribution and characteristics of the immigrant stock".

That was a leading recommendation with which I totally agree, as does everyone involved in official statistics.

At the same time, we must accept that this is a highly complex field for statisticians, perhaps the most complex of all the tasks facing them. The National Statistician, Karen Dunnell, explained all that in detail to the committee, but she also left no doubt about the determination in the statistical services to improve what is available. In my view there is only one satisfactory way of dealing with this, which is to establish a population register. That is a controversial matter, but several countries which have population registers benefit not only in the field of migration statistics but in population data generally. It is definitely the right way to go. Of course I am very aware of the arguments against, but there is a strong case. It would also have the advantage that we would no longer need censuses.

Meanwhile, there is much to be done. The formal arrangements that have now been introduced in Whitehall are encouraging. There is now a ministerial group and a programme board chaired by the National Statistician, both committed to progress on migration data. What matters, of course, are the details. The International Passenger Survey is being strengthened by using bigger samples and, I hope, will no longer be voluntary. The Labour Force Survey—the other main source—is also, I hope, being improved. There will be a redesigned new port survey. There will be new improved ways of estimating mid-year population figures and data on short-term immigration.

All that is encouraging, but I am most pleased about two things. First, there will be a focus on local authorities as a crucial source for better data. Secondly, there will be an increased dependence on administrative information. I stress to your Lordships that the future of improved population statistics, leaving aside the register idea, is through better administrative data, not through surveys, although surveys cannot be done without. A number of government departments which have been somewhat unhelpful in the past have relevant data sets covering and identifying migrants. The use and linkages of these sets and registers is the way of achieving better statistics. I know from my conversations with ONS that all that is now going to happen. Moreover, local authorities, many of which have also not been helpful in the past, will be urged, I hope increasingly, to help with using their administrative data with the same purpose in mind.

I find all that quite encouraging. Migration is now a top priority in the statistical system. The question is whether the Government will ensure adequate funding and collaboration from all relevant departments and local authorities. I am also encouraged by the fact that the new and very powerful statistics authority, which this House had a significant role in establishing, has now selected migration statistics as a priority for monitoring very early in 2009. As the authority reports to Parliament there will be another opportunity in both Houses, I hope, to judge progress.