Friday, August 23, 2013

A brief note on public opinion and immigration

We are facing the usual glut of headlines about how the public think that immigration is one of the most pressing issues facing the UK today. Aside from the fact that this is entirely based on perception, such polling results require a bit of basic dissection before making conclusions about them.

Let's start with the questions posed.

Most polls of this sort will give respondents a list of issues, preferably in randomised order, and ask them to identify the one/two/three most important issues. The issues from which to choose will vary somewhat over time as issues rise and fall, but many of them are fairly constant. Common issues include:
  • Crime
  • Economy
  • Unemployment
  • Housing
  • Healthcare
  • Immigration
  • Education
  • Pensions
  • Environment
  • Etc.
Many of the polls simply ask respondents which are the most pressing issues. However, the better polls ask people to identify the most pressing issues for their country as a whole as well as the most pressing issues for them personally. This then identifies what problems people are facing in their everyday lives separately from what they pick up from news media, rumour, heresay, etc.

This is where the results get interesting.

Let's take the Eurobarometer (May 2013) results. First, let's look at the rankings for the question, 'What do you think are the two most important issues facing the UK at the moment?'

For nationally pressing issues, unemployment and immigration clearly rank as the top issues. But the picture looks distinctly different when we look at answers to the second question, 'And personally, what are the two most important issues you are facing at the moment?'


Suddenly, immigration comes in as eighth most important.

What does this mean? A lot of people think immigration is a pressing issue at the national level but isn't for them. This indicates that respondents are picking up on government rhetoric and mass media reports that frame immigration as a pressing problem, but in actuality, the vast majority of people are facing far more pressing issues. It's not possible for something to be a pressing national issue that is a pressing personal issue for so few people.

Thus, whilst we should respond to people's fears about immigration, we should take such polls with a very generous pinch of salt. Our response should be more about education with less focus on perceptions that aren't based on any evidence.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Why an NHS levy for immigrants is wrong

Jeremy Hunt has announced a consultation period for a new policy that would require a proposed bond of £200/year for the first five years for non-EU immigrants to access the NHS. He claims that this is 'fair to British taxpayers'. This policy is neither fair nor evidence-based. Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Immigrants already pay to access the NHS. Not only do they pay a visa fee to come, they then pay National Insurance contributions, just like the 'British taxpayer' to whom Hunt refers. 
  2. There is no evidence of 'healthcare tourism' to the UK, despite government discourse. The better-researched estimates are that unpaid treatment for foreigners in the NHS costs £30-50m/year. This is compared with an annual NHS budget of around £104bn, meaning that such costs equate to around 0.15% of the annual budget, which makes the proposed levy seem like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.
  3. Even with the levy, the NHS would not reach full recovery of unpaid foreign debts, as an increased focus on enforcement will cause higher legal and administrative costs. Debt collection is not free.
  4. Limiting immigrants' access to emergency services only will have the undesirable effects of sending people who could be treated easily and affordably by a GP to A&E and of people delaying treatment for conditions until they are much worse. Early treatment is effective and affordable; emergency treatment is not.
  5. The government insists that 'Britain is open for business', despite placing ever-greater restrictions on student visas and other deterrent policies in pursuit of the seemingly-arbitrary goal of reducing net migration to 'tens of thousands'. The proposed levy would only apply to non-EU nationals, who already have to prove greater wealth and a secure job in a highly-skilled industry.
  6. Despite Hunt's claims to the contrary, such a policy very much turns GPs into border agents, just as universities have been saddled with increasing immigration policing, and there are proposals that landlords should also be responsible for checking the immigration status of tenants. GPs already have to check passports and visas for every new person registering at their surgeries. Doctors now express concerns that this policy could cause conflicts with their Hippocratic oath and that it could lead to outbreaks of epidemics from untreated illnesses.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but provides some of the most glaring errors in the policy proposal.

Friday, June 22, 2012

How Labour really got it wrong on immigration

At the moment, British political parties appear to be in a race to the right on immigration. Theresa May has made many announcements about how Labour 'got it wrong' on immigration and that the Tories now have to fix the 'mess' in which Labour left the country. Now Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, has acknowledged that Labour let in too many immigrants.

Most of the discourse now follows this pattern:
1. We have too many immigrants and we don't know what to do.
2. Why, oh why, did we let so many people in?
3. Immigrants take money out of the system and take British jobs away from British workers.
4.Net migration is out of control.
5. We have to stop immigration.

However, all of this misses several important points.
1. At most, immigrants have no effect on the economy.[Footnote 1] They have no access to the benefits system, unless they are applying for asylum or have received recognition as a refugee - and these benefits are meagre. There are a wide range of estimates about how much immigrants contribute to the economy, but, with the exception of Migration Watch, both government estimates and a wide variety of think tanks have concluded that immigrants have a neutral to positive impact. Furthermore, the Migration Watch figures are problematic in their treatment of the numbers.

2. Immigrants, even when they qualify for benefits (which is generally limited to contributory benefits into which they have already paid or to those who hold the status of permanent resident or refugee) are far less likely to apply for benefits than British nationals.

3. The majority of illegal immigrants are estimated to be visa overstayers. This means that they entered the country legally but did not leave when their visas expired. The number of people entering through people smuggling operations, or hidden on various means of transport, are small in comparison. This is connected to point 4:

4. The UK doesn't have exit checks, so the Home Office has no actual idea how many people are actually in the country. All figures are based on estimates, samples from the International Passenger Survey and educated guesses about flows of people. This is part of why so many of the illegal immigrants are visa overstayers. As long as these immigrants work in jobs that don't ask for ID checks and they don't appear on the police radar, try to apply for benefits, or leave the country and try to re-enter.

5. The government can't stop most immigration, as the majority of immigration is family members, protected persons (refugees and those given other exceptional leave to remain) and EU migration. Subtract student immigration, which has no rights for post-work study any more, and there is a relatively small percentage of immigration that the UK can limit.

6. The current government has politicised net migration figures, which means people coming into the country with intentions of staying a year or more minus those leaving the country with intentions of staying away for a year or more, thus excluding tourists, short-term business trips, and short-term academic exchanges. Net migration has not been dropping, but immigration has been dropping. Net migration has not dropped because fewer Brits are leaving to live abroad.

The most important point, though, is this:
7. Without the immigration rates under Labour, the UK would already be facing demographic change similar to Germany. This would mean much higher burden on the pension system and a contracting labour force.

The way that Labour (and governments before and after) got it wrong is this: although visa fees have risen more than 800% since 2004, when the Home Office was given the right to reclaim more than the administrative costs, this money is not hypothecated, i.e. the money raised from visa fees over and above the administrative costs is not used to address the strains on services (interpreters and translation costs in healthcare, schools, etc.) created by immigration. Thus, even though the immigrants are paying their way and are net contributors, the inevitable need for extra support for teachers, doctors, etc., are not addressed through the visa fees, and communities with greater strain do not receive the extra help they need.

There is no specific 'threshold of tolerance' after which a society breaks down because it cannot accommodate more diversity. The strains can be addressed through providing extra support and education for the communities most in need. There needs to be more two-way dialogue between different portions of society, but there is no less interaction between minority groups and the white British population than there is between many of the different segments of the white British population itself: how much do working-class Britons mix with the upper classes, for example?

Instead of addressing these problems, the current rhetoric simply blames immigration for many of society's ills. This blame game can hardly help the situation and is likely to fuel racist attacks, both physical and verbal, and these attacks will affect not only immigrants but also British-born British nationals, whose non-white skin will target them for abuse. Instead of pandering to the public's ignorance, politicians should take apart the myths about immigration and take the time to educate the public.

[1] Home Office report (Gott and Johnston, 2002) found a net positive contribution of £2.5bn in 1999-2000; Institute for Public Policy Research (Sriskandarajah et al., 2005) found a net contribution of £1.9bn for 1999-2000; Rowthorn (2008) found much smaller positive contributions for 2003-2004 of £0.6bn; Migration Watch (2006) classified children of mixed nationality couples differently and concluded there was a negative impact of -£1bn for 1999-2000 and -£5bn for 2003-2004;
Treasury data: Immigration contributed £6 billion to the UK economy, 2001-6; National Institute of Economic and Social Research: immigration added 3% to GDP between 1998-2005

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Support for far right grows in the UK

A newly published Searchlight poll gives some disturbing food for thought: 48% of Britons would consider supporting an anti-immigration party promising to tackle Islamist extremism. Another poll recently found that 71% of young people (16-24) think immigration is a "very big" or "fairly big" problem, the highest number registered in the 12 years this question has been asked. A majority of Britons believe that "on the whole, immigration into Britain has been a bad thing for the country" and that "Muslims create problems in the UK".

Though disturbing, these results are hardly surprising to someone familiar with the history of immigration and rhetoric in Germany.  In the 1990s, German politicians increasingly toyed with anti-immigrant rhetoric, finding that it gained them votes. The result: a rise in neo-Nazi and other right-wing, xenophobic parties as well as a huge increase in the number of violent acts perpetrated against foreigners and minorities. People began to attack asylum seekers' houses and burn them down. After years of electioneering by manipulating anti-immigrant sentiment, German politicians realised that they had created a monster. While such rhetoric might originally have bought them votes, these voters quickly abandoned them for more extremist candidates. Furthermore, the politicians were faced with the stark reality that Germany needed immigrants - desperately, in some industries - to fill hundreds of thousands of vacant jobs that Germans could not or would not fill.

When David Cameron made his 'multiculturalism is dead' speech on 5 February 2011 in Munich, he made some grave errors. First, he did not distance himself from the English Defence League rally in Luton occurring the same day, giving credence to their views on immigration. Second, he was hardly original, seeing as Angela Merkel gave this speech back in October 2010. Merkel was wise enough to insert cautions about xenophobia and violent racism and was arguably responding to intense pressure from within her party to move back towards the right. Third, he continued to draw attention to immigration, painting it as a horrible evil whilst failing to recognise the huge amounts of money that foreigners contribute to the UK economy, especially via the higher education sector.

While Damian Green gives speeches about how net migration is increasing, he fails to recognise that this is not actually because more people are coming to the UK - they're not. It is because fewer Brits than usual have left the country in the past year or so. Immigrants pay for two-thirds of the costs of UK border patrolling. They're forbidden from accessing benefits but pay National Insurance and taxes. They pay £11,000 a year to study at UK universities.

And they've been consistently criminalised by the Tory government.

The important point is that these speeches are not just empty words. They have a fundamental impact on real people's lives. They will increase the number of racial slurs identifiable minorities face on Britain's streets. They will increase the number of violent acts perpetrated against foreigners - or people the actors think are foreigners. And these people will see themselves as justified, sanctioned by the government rhetoric.

It saddens and angers me to think that the UK has the same lessons to learn as Germany and that I personally may have to pay some of the price of Cameron's and Green's speeches.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Student fees and transatlantic misunderstandings

Lord Browne's review of university funding dominates the thoughts of many people at the moment, not least this household. This entry won't be about citizenship or immigration but about student fees in order to address the incredible misunderstandings upon which politicians are making transatlantic comparisons at the moment.

The review proposes raising university fees substantially, throwing in the possibility of unlimited fees. Many politicians draw parallels to the American system, where well-known, top-class universities like Harvard charge upwards of $50,000 a year. Yet such comparisons are generally hollow without a deeper understanding of the American private university system.

While Harvard's pricetag may be $50,000 a year, it is a heavily endowed university committed to removing financial barriers for students good enough to be accepted. It offers means-tested grants that can make the education nearly free for students coming from families with incomes under $60,000 a year. In fact, at Yale, students coming from such income backgrounds were expected on average to contribute about $2,600 a year - including room and board. At Harvard, nearly 70 per cent of students receive aid, and the other 30 per cent would be from families with incomes over $120,000 per year.

Private American universities are able to provide such levels of grants through substantial endowments. During the 2010-11 year alone, Harvard anticipates giving out $158 million in need-based assistance. British universities cannot even begin to match such levels of private holdings to subsidize education.

At the other end of the spectrum, America also has a system of junior colleges that can cost as little as $150 a term and give a qualification equivalent to half of a bachelor's degree, after which the recipient can transfer to a full-fledged university to complete his/her education. This offers a good option for students whose families do not have enough money to pay for a four-year degree and whose grades are not competitive enough to draw a merit-based scholarship from a well-ranked university.

Without such alternatives in place, Britain's discussions of such fast, possibly uncapped, fee rises are ridiculous. Why would a top-calibre student choose to study at a good UK university in the face of high fees if s/he could gain a place at an American university and pay less?

There is one other problem that needs to be addressed. The review says that the funding structure of the universities is unsustainable and that the students must contribute more to their education. On the surface, this is somewhat understandable, though there are logical fallacies that were pointed out in the previous blog post. Now, however, it emerges that Osborne is proposing 80% cuts to government funding for universities, essentially shifting the burden of education from the government to the students. Yet students will - reasonably, it would seem - expect higher standards if they're going to pay twice as much, standards that it will be impossible to meet because the departments will have the same budget as they do now, simply a different source of income. Raising student fees cannot be seen as an alternative to government investment, and there can be no doubt that it will hit the poorest the hardest.

Are we really all in it together?