On 4th February Lord Green of Deddington gave us a talk entitled “Asylum and Immigration: how much can we handle?”
He stressed the importance of the issues and their significance for our future. Despite a general reluctance to discuss these matters, at least in public, it was important that we should do so in a measured way. He noted that immigrants have made, and continue to make, a major contribution towards the arts, music, science, academia, literature, food and many other aspects of our society. However, the scale of immigration had now reached a point where it had become a problem in terms of its impact on the size of our population and our ability to integrate new arrivals.
He described the development of the numbers which had taken off in 1998 and public opinion which had similarly become increasingly anxious. He outlined the impact of the current scale of immigration on population growth and housing. If immigration were to continue at 265,000 a year, for example, this would increase our population by the equivalent of 16 times the population of Liverpool in the next fifteen years.
The economics of immigration were a contested area, but in terms of GPD per head, no-one had been able to counter the conclusion of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee in 2008 that there was no evidence that net migration generates significant economic benefits for the existing population.
As regards the fiscal impact, all migrants were a cost to the Exchequer, but recent migrants from the European Union were of some benefit. This was certainly the view of employers who welcomed the supply of hard working and cheerful labour. The outcome for British workers was to ensure that there was no wage inflation.
The answer to the question “How much can we handle” was, of course, a political question. It came down to where one strikes a balance between the economic and social benefits, and the dis-benefits in terms of pressure on housing, public services and social cohesion. That said, public opinion seemed to be pretty clear. 70% of the public want to see immigration reduced, including a majority of the ethnic minority communities.
Turning to asylum, he outlined the present asylum system which was far from perfect but was workable on the scale of recent applications which had been about 20,000 a year. However, now that the borders of Southern Europe had collapsed, the pressure would become much more difficult to handle.
As for how many we could handle, a large inflow would be a risky undertaking since it might have a negative effect on public opinion and on their support for the concept of asylum. It would be much better to build from the 20,000 over five years which the government had already committed to. Meanwhile, the best policy was to support Syrians in the camps surrounding their country so as to keep alive the hope that they might one day be able to return to their own homes, villages and society.
Needless to say, there was a very stimulating discussion at the end of this talk.