The United Kingdom is at two historic turning points. They go together. Much depends on the outcome. Its rapid population growth, driven by the highest immigration in its history, is destabilising, transforming its population, its environment and its ethnic make-up into something quite new. At the same time the UK faces a choice about leaving the European Union or remaining in it. Some welcome the growth of the population and the increased diversity that it brings. For those who do not, leaving the EU offers a possibility of moderating at least some of that growth, keeping the UK in something like its present size and shape. And it is only a possibility. By itself Brexit might change nothing; it would depend on the choices made by any post-Brexit government, in particular on also leaving the European Economic Area and hence ending the commitment to the free movement of labour.
Until 1997 immigration had been off the policy agenda for 20 years, thanks to an uneasy political consensus to limit inflows. Although trending slightly upwards, immigration was not then very controversial. As soon as it was elected, however, the Blair government began to take down the barriers to migration. First, it pleased its minority voters by removing the “primary purpose rule” intended to filter out fake marriage applications. Then in 2010 a more fundamental revision of immigration policy followed. That was to welcome inflows now regarded, on the flimsiest of evidence, as being essential to the UK economy, rescuing it from population ageing and increasing ethnic diversity, now regarded as an essential asset, not a problem as hitherto. According to the Blair aide Andrew Neather, in an article in the Evening Standard of October 23, 2009, one of the aims of the New Labour policy of opening up the UK to mass immigration was to “rub the Right’s nose in diversity”, promoting permanent ethnic change to the permanent advantage of Labour’s aims. In its first aim at least that policy has been highly successful, more so, it seems than its authors envisaged. The steps then taken provoked a rapid upsurge in net migration (inflow minus outflow) which continues to reach record levels: 3.3 million immigrants came to the UK from 2001 to 2014 (Figure 1).
Immigration, mostly then from outside the EU, had already reached record levels when in 2004 the Blair government, alone among the major economies of the West, allowed free entry for work to the new Eastern European EU accession countries (the “A8”) in 2004. The rapid increase in EU migration is apparent in Figure 1. Those countries had lower levels of income and social and political development relative to the EU average than earlier candidate countries such as Spain (the EU lowered the bar even further for Bulgaria and Romania in 2007). Everything known about migration pointed to a very large influx, but the government fatuously predicted that “13,000 per year” would enter. Officially, 53,000 entered in the first year and 76,000 the next; these figures are now known to be substantial underestimates. By 2013, 1.24 million people born in Eastern Europe were living in the UK, compared with 170,000 in 2004: the biggest inflow in British history. No forward planning or provision whatsoever was made for the Blairite influx. Indeed it has been so great that it would have been difficult to make adequate provision. Hence many of our present problems.
What, then, are those problems? Many arise straightforwardly from the pressure of population. UK population nearly stabilised in the 1970s and 1980s: birth and death rates were in balance, in some years more migrants leaving than arriving. There were even very small falls in population from 1975-78 and in 1982. Annual growth in the 1980s was 0.02 per cent. New immigration changed all that. Between 2013 and 2014, the UK population increased by nearly half a million (491,000) or 0.77 per cent per year, one of the fastest rates of any industrial country. Net immigration contributed just over half (54 per cent) of that growth, and 58 per cent to growth since 2001 (Figure 2). That is not all.
Women born overseas contributed 27 per cent of all live births in England and Wales in 2014, and 33 per cent of births had at least one immigrant parent, a figure which has more than doubled since the 1990s. Taking into account both net migration and the births to the foreign-born population, minus the deaths to the foreign-born population (its “natural increase”), compared with the much smaller natural increase of the UK-born population, migration accounted overall for 85 per cent of UK population growth from 2001-2012.
What is the prospect for the future? Although precarious as forecasts, projections are anchored in the present, in that, migrants apart, all school entrants for the next five years have already been born, all work entrants for the next 20 years, all pensioners for the next 70, and so on. As we look further and further into the future, assumptions about future birth, death and migration become more and more important. The death rate has had the most regular trend. The “birth rate” (expressed as the number of children a woman can expect to have on current trends), has been more variable but in the UK has been confined between 1.63 and 1.91 since the 1970s. It is currently about 1.83. Migration is the wild card: attempts to forecast it are a lucky dip. Nonetheless since the 1990s migration to the UK has been growing rapidly and has maintained a high level without precedent. There are powerful reasons for expecting that to continue, possibly to increase.
The latest projections from the Office of National Statistics were based on 2014. A central Principal Projection (PP) shows what ONS, assisted by the views of a panel of experts thinks is most likely to happen, based on recent trends and developments. Its specification is a bit vague; probably inevitably so without a crystal ball. Variants, combining high, low and medium assumptions in all three variables, allow ONS to hedge its bets. In the PP, total fertility, currently 1.83, is assumed to rise to a constant 1.89, while mortality will continue to decline. Net migration will fall rapidly to a constant 185,000. The high variant assumes 250,000; the low variant 120,000. None of these counts as the “tens of thousands” promised in 2010. In none does the UK population fail to grow to over 70 million.
Figure 2: Components of annual population change, United Kingdom 1992-2014 (thousands). Source: ONS
In the PP the UK population (now 65 million) exceeds 70 million in 11 years, reaches 77 million by 2050 and exceeds 80 million by 2060. That implies an additional 2.9 million immigrants by 2030, not including their post-2014 children. Within the time limits of the projection, population continues to grow without ceasing. In the high variant, growth is even more striking: 80 million is reached by 2050. That implies an additional 3.9 million immigrants by 2030. These precise projections require the assumptions being precisely followed. That never happens and becomes much less probable as time advances. Nonetheless, if migration, the dominant factor, is expected to decline then reasons must be advanced for that. None seem obvious; indeed quite the contrary.
But all these official assumptions are far below the actual level of recent net migration: 313,000 in calendar 2014, 323,000 in the 12 months to September 2015, the latest available at the time of writing. Were the 2014 actual inflow to persist, UK population would exceed 80 million shortly after 2040, in 25 years’ time, and 90 million shortly after 2060. Comparison with the zero migration variant makes it clear that almost all the projected increase in any of the variants arises from migration, both of the post-2014 migrants themselves and their children born in the UK.
Official estimates of migration to the UK are a constant source of controversy. They depend upon the International Passenger Survey (IPS), a relatively small voluntary sample survey of international passengers, supplemented by other information. Its figures often need correction, usually upwards. Once again, serious doubts have been raised about the adequacy of the IPS to measure international migrations.
The number of new National Insurance numbers (Nino) required for work issued to EU citizens from 2011 to 2015 — 2.234 million — greatly exceeds the number of people who arrived from the EU in that period according to the ONS estimates of long-term migration — 1.004 million. That implies an undercount of 1.2 million, or about 24,000 per year. And in the latest year (to September 2015), 655,000 Ninos were registered to EU citizens, but the figure for long-term migrations from the EU was 257,000. ONS has claimed that this is mostly accounted for by short-term migration, not included in the annual long-term immigration figures. But we have no complete counts of entries and exits, and quite separate information supports the claim of a substantial undercount of EEA nationals.
HMRC has found that in 2013/14 there were one million individuals from the EEA who were paying tax and/or claiming benefits who had arrived in the previous four years. Comparison with long immigration from the EEA in the same period of 739,000 suggests an undercount of around quarter of a million, or about 60,000 per year. That does not include children, non-working partners of couples without children, and those working in the black economy. In the future, adequate information relating directly to migration plans must be collected. In the longer run, it is essential to replace this recurrent shambles with a modern population register linked to migration. But there are reasons to expect that migration will remain high or even increase.
There are many reasons for supposing that net migration will not decline as ONS assumes it will. On the contrary, it may even increase. Any reduction in net migration to the UK requires at least one of the following developments:
Effective operation of the restrictions on welfare negotiated by Mr Cameron, which are subject to agreement of all the other 27 EU states. But all commentators agree that the effects, even if they could be applied, would be nugatory.
A resolution of the euro crisis, and eurozone labour market reforms, such that youth unemployment in France and Southern Europe falls from its current 20-40 per cent. Then migration to the UK from the developed economies of the western EU countries might return to its previous modest levels. Economic forecasts and the current outlook do not inspire confidence that such progress can be expected any time soon.
Convergence in real wages in Eastern Europe. Big wage differentials, not welfare, are the main attraction drawing A8 nationals to Britain. At present, wages in A8 countries are between one quarter and one sixth of the UK level. But even at an optimistic 3 per cent rate of convergence, those economies could not converge until about 2050. Introduction of the National Living Wage in the UK has further increased the attraction of the UK for migrants, of course.
Further restrictions by the UK on the number of immigrants admitted from outside the EU. A number of possibilities exist, but they would require political will and moderation of judicial activism — for example, further restrictions on marriage migration, by increasing residence requirements, age limits on marriage, and proficiency in English language. Denmark and the Netherlands have introduced requirements of that kind, reducing inflows and, probably more important, persuading immigrant communities to find more partners from within the resident population.
Ending the dependency culture of employers for migrant labour. Employers’ preferences for immigrant labour are creating dependency and distorting the economy. It would be desirable to persuade employers to concentrate first on the domestic population for labour, and train them as necessary, focus apprenticeship schemes onto substantial, demanding long-term placements, rather than short-term nominal ones, perhaps an obligation to take on domestic workers in some proportion to overseas workers. At present such preferences are only possible in respect of workers from outside the EU. Employers cannot be blamed for choosing the path of least effort, recruiting lower cost and willing labour from wherever they can. That reflects, in part, a failure of education and training. Government should moderate its own dependency on overseas labour notably for the NHS, improving its appalling manpower planning. In February 2016, 69 per cent of hospital trusts were seeking medical staff overseas.
A weakened UK economy, and a fall in the demand for labour. Critics of Brexit claim that a vote to leave would damage economic growth. The details of the gloomy long-term forecasts about the consequences of Brexit by the OECD and HM Treasury belong in the realm of fairy-stories; it is difficult to forecast growth even one year ahead. Nonetheless, economic uncertainty on Brexit seems very likely, irrespective of the longer-term prospects. The OECD document forecast a fall in net migration of 84,000 per year, partly because of a reduced demand for labour and partly through the assumed introduction of controls.
UK exit from the EU and the EEA. A post-Brexit government could decide to limit entry from the EU and EEA, possibly favouring highly-skilled migrants. Indeed there would be little point in Brexit without such measures. That would restrict EU inflows, most of which are in low-paid work. Oxford’s Migration Observatory has reported that three-quarters of the 2.2 million EU citizens currently employed in the UK, and more than 90 per cent of those in retail, restaurants and agriculture, would not meet the strict visa requirements imposed on migrants from the rest of the world, raising questions about potential labour shortages. That would be a severe requirement, possibly unrealistic, but it underlines strongly the potential for limiting EU migration after an exit from the EU.
Further expansion of the EU is likely to increase migration even further. The apparently relentless drive to the east by the EU Commission will activate further sources of migration as more poor countries are embraced by the EU. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 and its citizens will be free to seek work in 2020. Looking further to the future, citizens of new accession countries whose applications are in the pipeline will be eligible to look for work in the UK once joined, assuming the seven-year delay is imposed. These are: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Bosnia and Kosovo are waiting in the wings as potential candidate countries. Ukraine’s candidacy has been discussed. Most of those mentioned are small, Turkey and Ukraine are large. Like the A8, they all share a much lower level of economic and political development than the EU15. The long-run migration potential from those countries is highly uncertain — estimates range from 2 to 4 per cent of their population up to 12 to 15 per cent. But it is likely to be large, at least in percentage terms, and certain to be heading westwards. In case these figures seem fanciful, recall that one third of the population of Albania is already estimated to be living in Western countries.
Turkey is a special problem. It is not a European country, despite the small corner of the European continent that it still occupies. Its accession would take the frontiers of the EU to those of Iraq, Iran and Syria. Its population is 80 million and rising, its income per head one quarter that of the UK. Some of its regions are rock-bottom poor, with very high birth rates. Repression of press freedoms and conflict with minorities — notably the Kurds — is becoming harsher. Despite that, the EU is being successfully blackmailed into accelerating Turkey’s stalled admission application, for its help in the migration crisis. Mr Cameron remains in favour of Turkey’s admission to the EU, a position impossible to reconcile with his promises to reduce migration. Turkey’s potential for migration is very difficult to evaluate, but comparisons with Poland have suggested about 100,000 per year to the UK.
On top of all that, once resident for some time (between six and eight years in Germany, five to ten years in other countries) the million or more migrants who have entered Europe between 2014 and 2016, and those still to come, will be potentially eligible for citizenship of the EU countries in which they reside. As EU citizens, they will then be free to move to the UK if the UK stays in the EU. Most of those in Germany may be content to remain there. But those obliged to claim asylum in less favoured countries may wish to move on.
Why does all this matter? The friends of population growth, George Osborne, many in the “Remain” campaign, business periodicals such as the Economist and the FT, see no harm in population growth and much benefit. GDP and overall tax revenue increase pro rata. And, as the BBC and much of the media tell us, as immigration is good for the country, why complain? One grows weary of pointing out that GDP growth brings no benefit to the individual; only GDP per head can do that. It is impossible here to address adequately the arguments about the economic benefits of migration. High-skilled migration is usually a benefit unless it generates dependency and deters domestic training and opportunity. The immigrant contribution to most aspects of life in Britain will be apparent to everyone. It has brought many illustrious persons to Britain. But it can be a penalty on poor sending countries. However, on the simple fiscal calculations usually presented, the average benefits per capita are trivial and may be negative. In any case, the benefits of migration accrue mostly to the immigrant. A fiscal study in 2014 which included some costs such as education as well as tax, earnings and benefits showed that, overall, immigration from 1995 to 2011 imposed a cost of between £32 billion and £114 billion, depending on the assumptions made, a positive contribution from EEA migrants being greatly outweighed by the net cost of immigrants from the rest of the world.
Few of these fiscal calculations include the large additional costs imposed by migration: the need to build more schools, maternity wards and hospitals, and housing, the pressure on transport and infrastructure such as water resources. Immigrants bring no capital. Births in the UK have risen strongly since the beginning of the century; from 668,777 in 2002 to 778,805 in 2013. Of these, births to immigrant mothers have almost doubled from 110,484 to 196,806, altogether 78 per cent of the increase. On top of that the National Statistician has disclosed that between 2000 and 2014, 152,000 children of school age came to the UK from the EEA, 126,000 of them since 2004. Schools are correspondingly under great pressure: 880,000 more pupils are officially projected by 2023, mostly as a consequence of immigration.
As with population, most of the increase in additional new households is driven by migration. The table below from ONS shows the percentage of the increase in households from 1996-2000 up to 2010-14 with a “Household Reference Person (HRP)”, in effect the head of the household, born outside the UK. The last period may be exceptional as fewer households were formed. While growth in households does not translate exactly into housing demand, these data from ONS show the predominant effect of immigration on the housing situation. While immigration continues at a high level, most future housebuilding will be devoted to accommodating it. These facts are seldom raised when the housing crisis is discussed.
Diversity imposes costs, in translation, accommodation to varied dietary requirements, new public sector bureaucracies, legal complications. On the strategic level, the UK’s basic problem of low productivity is seldom laid at the door of large supply of low-cost labour available from immigration, deterring capital investment and even encouraging capital disinvestment, notably in agriculture. However much energy efficiency programmes may succeed in reducing energy demand, population growth puts pressure on energy adequacy, already expected to be marginal as power stations are closed. Maybe the lights will not stay on if today’s high migration levels persist. And at present the UK imports about 40 per cent of its food requirements, creating a food trade deficit of about £13 billion. Despite projected future world population growth of 3 billion, official reports remain sanguine about the ability of the UK to feed itself. But with high migration it may turn out to be more costly than expected.
Finally, immigration is making the most fundamental permanent change of all, in the composition of the population itself. In the 1991 census, the first to record self-ascribed ethnic origin, the non-white population, mostly of post-1960 immigrant origin, stood at 3 million or 6 per cent of the total in England and Wales. By 2011 this had increased to nearly 8 million, or 14 per cent of the total. Those describing themselves as “White British” comprised 88 per cent of the total population in 2001 and 81 per cent in 2011. Between the 2001 and 2011 census, the “White British” population in England and Wales declined by 400,000, the non-white population increased by over three million and the population describing itself white but not British (many from Eastern Europe) increased by just over a million. The 4 million addition to the total population of England and Wales between 2001 and 2011 arose from ethnic minority growth through immigration and natural increase. The 2011 census also showed that, for the first time, the White British population of London accounted for less than half of its total population (44 per cent). Compared with 2001, the White British population had fallen by nearly 620,000 or 14 per cent, while the non-white population rose by 1.2 million or nearly 60 per cent. All these ethnic categories are self-assigned in the UK census and surveys.
What might the future hold for the ethnic composition of the UK? Even given the ONS assumptions about net migration, the ethnic composition of the population would change rapidly. A projection made by this author in 2010 yielded the results in Figure 3. Here, it assumed overall migration at the level of the ONS Principal Projection based on 2008 but subdivided it to various ethnic groups. The “Other White” category is regarded as an ethnic minority group. It mostly comprises people from European countries who do not regard themselves as “White British” and also a number from Turkey, the Middle East and other areas. The birth rates of the different ethnic groups were assumed to converge, all groups were assumed to share the same declining mortality. Note that the ONS itself does not make projections of ethnic groups.
Figure 3: Percentage of UK population in three major ethnic categories, 2006-2056
Any projection up to 2056 becomes progressively uncertain. But there would have to be major changes in the components of the projection to make any big difference, most importantly in migration. Even without migration the minority population would increase to 11 million by mid-century, as opposed to the projected 23 million, through population momentum. Projections by other demographers, it must be added, come to lower conclusions about future minority growth. Other factors may become important as well as migration. Some minority groups, Chinese and probably Indian, already have birth rates lower than average. Others may follow them.
On the other hand, the birth rates of recent Eastern European migrants are higher than the UK average, although that may be a temporary adjustment to new and favourable conditions. Taking the projection to an even more uncertain distance, the White British population would cease to be the majority in the UK by the late 2060s. However, should current high levels of immigration persist for any length of time, that date would move closer to the present. Britain would then become unrecognisable to its present inhabitants. Some would welcome a brave new experiment, pioneering a wider world future. Others might say “Finis Britanniae.”
What does all that mean? Some would welcome it as a move to a more diverse society. But as numbers in different groups increase, their need to integrate to British society becomes less and less, except inasmuch as needed to operate in the economy. And as the balance of numbers changes, the question arises as to who will adapt to whom. Some, like many Pakistani Muslims in some northern cities, continue to live a closed, traditional lifestyle in first-world comfort, with little need to adapt to their British surroundings. Such groups increase, while UK space available to the White British diminishes. The former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, recently warned vigorously about the serious consequences of failing to adopt a strong policy of integration, warning of “squeamishness about addressing diversity risks allowing our country to sleepwalk to a catastrophe that will set community against community”. An earlier commentator, Christopher Caldwell, described UK policy as “fear masquerading as toleration”. Very high levels of immigration make this issue even more pressing than before.
I noted at the beginning that Britain is at a tide in its affairs. If immigration is not substantially reduced the country will be transformed out of recognition by the consequences of a very large population increase; schools, housing, environment, the make-up of the people of Britain, all will change in ways in which no one has been consulted and few want. The coming referendum will not of itself resolve the issue. But it might offer the beginning of the end of an otherwise inexorable change.