Is there evidence of immigration putting pressure on British communities?

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Korski, an aide to David Cameron, wrote a fascinating insider’s account of Britain’s renegotiation of terms with the European Union, prior to June’s referendum. Particularly eye-catching was his claim that Britain had was incapable to make a strong case for restricting welfare payments to EU migrants. When EU counterparts pointed out that the UK had lower migration than countries like Germany, that it had a growing economy with full employment, that it did less to address regional inequality than other countries, and that migrants paid more in taxes than they cost in public services:

“We were never able to counter these arguments. To be honest, we failed to find any evidence of communities under pressure that would satisfy the European Commission…There was no hard evidence.”

Andrew Green, Chairman of anti-immigration think tank MigrationWatch UK responded last Wednesday to assure us this was Korski’s failing, and not in fact because there is a genuine lack of evidence.

The quote above comes from Green’s article – interestingly, the section he cut out makes direct reference to him and his organisation, and their inability to help out the Government. Here’s the relevant section in full, with the bits removed by Green in bold:

We were never able to counter these arguments. To be honest, we failed to find any evidence of communities under pressure that would satisfy the European Commission. At one point we even asked the help of Andrew Green at MigrationWatch, an organization that has been critical of migration. But all he could provide was an article in the Daily Telegraph about a hospital maternity ward in Corby. There was no hard evidence.

It’s not clear whether Green disputes this version of events, or if he has new arguments which he couldn’t produce at the time. Either way, Green’s article produces six statistics which are supposed to indicate that migration is having a negative effect on the UK. Does he succeed? Let’s go through them one-by-one:

  1. “Our population, driven by migration, is projected by the Office for National Statistics to grow by half a million a year, the fastest rate for nearly a century and equivalent to a city the size of Liverpool”.

500,000 is a lot of people. But then the UK is a big country. Is that too many people? The ONS tells us that UK population grew by 513,000 between 2014 and 2015. We do not need to go back a century to match this increase – in 2011, population growth was 525,000. Indeed, population growth has exceeded 400,000 ever year since 2005, often around 500,000. However, these are relatively high by historical standards – for most of the 20th Century, population grew by 200,000 a year at most.  Then again, this might have as much to do with the idiosyncrasies of the UK’s demographic trends as anything. The chart below compares UK population growth to a selection of developed countries, using data from the World Bank. This shows that a growth rate of 0.75% a year, roughly equivalent to 500,000 extra people a year in the UK, is hardly unprecedented – it is represented by the thick black line. The USA has not dipped below this rate in over 50 years, and even densely populated countries like the Netherlands regularly approach it.


None of this answers the question of whether population growth of 500,000 is too high for the UK to cope with – but then the best evidence for that is whether you think the UK has struggled to cope with recent rates of migration. Which, if you recall, was the question at issue.

I’m not sure what to make of the Liverpool comparison, not least because migrants are dispersed so we don’t had to build a new city for them. All it does is show that 500,000 is a lot of people. But as I say, the UK is a big country.

      2.  We need to build a new home in England every five minutes for the next 25 years just to keep up with demand from future migration.

Is that a lot? It sure sounds like a lot. But then England is a big country with lots of teams of builders, so maybe it’s not so much? If my maths is correct, that works out at 105,120 houses a year. Housebuilding in England has never fallen below 107,000, and has usually been much higher – prior to the recession it was typically 140-150,000. So a new home every five minutes doesn’t sound particularly extreme.


3. The Department of Health has reported 650,000 new migrant GP registrations each year for the past five years

This is somewhat clearer as evidence of migrant pressure on public services, but again lacks for context. How does that level of registrations compare to the general population at large? How does that relate to capacity? We also ought to be careful about drawing inferences from registrations to GP workload – migrants are typically younger than average and so we would expect them to require less care from GPs than the rest of the populations.

4. One in four births in England and Wales are to a foreign-born mother.

This is a stronger argument as it is reasonable to infer that foreign-born households account for a disproportionate amount of maternity care (the UK’s foreign born population is 13%). However, as above, Green fails to show that this pushes maternity wards over capacity, because he doesn’t provide any indication of what capacity is.

5. By 2018, 60 per cent of primary schools are projected by the Local Government Association to have a shortfall in places

This argument is the inverse of 4 – it shows that primary schools are running up against capacity constraints, but doesn’t show that this is linked to migration.

6. Nearly half of social housing in London is headed by a foreign-born person.

The first point to make about this argument is that, by MigrationWatch’s own admission, foreign-born people are about as likely to live in social housing than their UK born counterparts: “they make up 42% of all households and 43% of all households in social housing” (the table below is taken from MW). Indeed, this pattern holds for the rest of country.

However, it is widely held (though not demonstrated by Green) that there is a shortage in social housing, particularly in London, and migrants clearly contribute to that demand (if not disproportionately), so this argument cannot be dismissed easily.

While some of these arguments are more compelling than others, many of them share a common set of weaknesses. There is a tendency to throw out big numbers without context (e.g. a city the size of Liverpool), which may make for effective rhetoric, but does not constitute a meaningful argument. There is a general failure to define what constitutes excessive pressure – what are the limits beyond which the system cannot cope? There is a suspicion of cherry picking – for example, over-representation in maternity wards is likely to be related to the relative youth of migrants, and offset by their relative absence from (expensive) geriatric care. Relatedly, there is no consideration of positive contributions of migrants: they are not just recipients of services, but taxpayers who fund the state, builders who help address the housing crisis, doctors and nurses who relieve pressure on the NHS. Green does not even engage with the common claim (made by the EU representatives above) that the net contribution might be positive.

This almost uncertainly unfair on Green: his short blogpost is not meant to be a detailed policy paper. Moreover, he may well be correct that a lack of data makes it harder for non-governmental organisations to get a full picture of the effects of migration. However, in my view his article reinforces the impression of  Korski’s original argument: that if this is the best MigrationWatch can do, we are pretty far from a convincing argument of excessive pressures from immigration in the UK.


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