Author: David Olusoga
It was some time in the 1990s that the phrase “evidence-based policy” first lumbered on to the UK political landscape. In the Blair years, every report or policy paper seemed to promise a future in which all policy would be firmly “evidence based”; inspired by research rather than ideology or political strategy. The aspiration might remain but when it comes to immigration, an issue that poll after poll shows many in the UK regard as among the most important, there has never been much actual evidence on which policy might be based.
Here’s the bit everyone agrees on. From 2004 onwards, when several eastern and central European nations joined the EU, and the UK, unlike Germany, elected not to exercise its right to impose a seven-year block on people from these new member states coming here to live, net immigration increased considerably.
Aside from piecemeal bits of evidence, what has been unknown is what effects this increased migration had on the UK economy, jobs, housing market and access to basic services. So within a largely fact-free zone, unsubstantiated claims rubbed shoulders with urban myths, dog-whistle xenophobia and outright falsehoods. Tales of immigrants being given the keys to council houses ahead of UK-born citizens, along with anecdotes about crime waves and benefit dependency, were all given credence and column inches. It was this atmosphere, exploited by Ukip and others, that helped inspire the “hostile environment” policy.
This is why the highly detailed, 140-page report published by the migration advisory committee (MAC) is so significant. The committee, set up, ironically enough, by Amber Rudd, who lost her job as home secretary in an immigration scandal, was tasked with finally injecting some facts and data. Most of the focus has been on its recommendations on the shape of immigration policy post-Brexit, recommendations that were instantly weaponised by the opposing sides in World War Brexit. But the research behind those recommendations is of equal significance. Now, finally, there are statistics in place of anecdote.
For the political class, the committee’s finding that 87% of the population does not believe MPs tell them the truth about immigration should be of deep concern. On arguably the most divisive issue in UK politics, around which so many of the claims of the Leave campaign were built, there is a profound crisis of trust. Years of using immigration as a political football with which to achieve short-term goals have clearly come at a cost.
Among the most common phrases in the report is “There is no evidence….” No evidence was found for the contention that the arrival of migrants reduced the uptake of training by workers born in the UK or that migration from the European Economic Area (EEA) reduces the range of school choices available to UK-born parents. Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest that the presence of the children of migrants undermines the educational attainment of other children in their class. Page by page and one by one, multiple claims made by various branches of the Leave campaign during the referendum are put under the microscope and disproved.
Other sections of the MAC report show that immigrants are not to blame for the lack of social housing. The key factor here is – of course – the failure to build enough new homes. If we can no longer complain that immigrants are taking all the council houses, can we at least still grumble about them exploiting the NHS? Again no. Migrants from the EEA, the report concludes, “contribute much more to the health service and the provision of social care in financial resources and through work than they consume in services”. Overall, EEA migrants pay far more in taxes than they receive in benefits, more in fact than the average UK-born worker, and migrants may have had a positive impact on productivity, the achilles heel of the UK economy.
The only areas of life where immigration from the EEA has contributed to increased prices and pressure on resources are in housing and in wages in lower-skilled jobs, in particular personal services. For workers in these areas, there have been costs as well as benefits to migration. But even on house prices the picture is not a simple one. The effect, as the report says, has been greatest in “areas with more restrictive planning policies”, where developers have been unable to meet the increased demand for new homes. In other parts of the country where similar demands are being met, part of the workforce building the much-needed new homes is what the report calls “migrant construction workers”. Immigrants from the EEA have been part of the solution much more often than the source of the problem. Another key word in the report is ‘“isolation”: “The impacts of migration also cannot be seen in isolation from other government policies,” say the report’s authors and the impact of migration from the EEA has been “small in magnitude when set against other changes”.
In other words, the issue that was so brutally exploited by Leave campaigners during the referendum, the issue at the heart of the greatest political folly of our age, the issue that has bitterly and profoundly divided the nation and been used to induce us to turn our backs on our main training partners and flounce out of the richest trading bloc in the world, was – after all – founded on a fantasy, one generated over decades by rightwing tabloids and brought into vivid focus in 2016 by the algorithms of the Leave campaigners.
With the evidence now in and the claims that had been plastered over their pages disproved, what has been the reaction of those same newspapers to this vast infusion of official data and analysis? Silence. In time, they will cherrypick from the report and ignore the authors’ injunction not to see things in isolation, because immigration is no longer about evidence, the economy or national wellbeing. For some, it has become a belief system, impervious to evidence.