Migration is not pick-and-choose, it’s pick and mix

Reading some of the headlines in the tabloid newspapers over recent months, it would have been easy for people to see immigration as a thoroughly bad thing. But, in such a politically charged atmosphere, it’s important to take a clear-headed review based on the evidence.

Put simply, immigrants are bringing skills to our economy that we lack, and doing jobs that the local population won’t, so the benefits they bring are clear. Their presence helps the economy grow – a 1% rise in the population through migration delivers an increase in GDP of 1.25%-1.5%. Official statistics back this up: despite making up only 8% of the workforce, migrants generate 10% of the UK’s wealth.

And it’s clear that migrants are filling gaps at all levels of the economy, right up to senior management – it’s not just cleaners and fruit pickers. Recent CBI research demonstrates that the demand for skilled migrants is as high as, and in some sectors higher than, demand for unskilled labour. Government figures support this: 21% of immigrant workers have a degree compared to 17% of UK-born workers, with their wage on average 13% higher.

In the CBI’s Employment Trends Survey, many employers had plans to hire workers from Poland and the other newer member states, but more than one-fifth anticipated recruiting from the EU15, or ‘older’ member states, in the next year.

The ability to recruit abroad to plug more immediate shortfalls in the labour market is essential for companies. However, immigration can never be a sustainable alternative to addressing skills shortages in our indigenous workforce, nor can we ignore the need to help more people on incapacity and unemployment benefit back into work.

It is important that there are robust, trusted – and fair – processes in place to manage migration. One government proposal that CBI members have welcomed is the plan for a points-based system for immigrants from outside the EU. If we get this right, it’ll make the system quicker, fairer and more transparent, reducing the time and money that employers – and prospective immigrants – have to spend applying for leave to work in the UK.

But it’s the large numbers of Eastern European immigrants to the UK that have really been making the headlines. It is not concerns about the economy that are causing some people to question the government’s policy on immigration. It’s the huge under-estimation of how many people would come to work here that has led to a lack of public faith in the Home Office’s grip on the situation.

Home Office predictions of about 13,000 people per year have been far exceeded by actual numbers of almost 450,000 in the first two years since EU enlargement. That’s why the CBI has welcomed the government’s suggestion that “very gradual access” is given to the labour market for workers from Romania and Bulgaria. Limiting numbers at first should give government, business and the public a chance to monitor the effect of migration – on the economy and society in general.

But introducing initial restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians – so-called ‘transition measures’ – is a very different matter to calling for a halt to migration. Given all the positives that migrants bring, it’s rightly a matter of how and when we allow fellow EU citizens to work here – not if.

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