Immigration to UK hits record despite tough talk

Figures released yesterday show net immigration to Britain was at unprecedented levels last year. The news has reignited one of the most controversial debates in politics.

May 2010: Britain’s Conservative Party wins elections, promising to cut immigration down to ‘the tens of thousands’ – a fraction of the total at the time. November 2011: newly released figures show net immigration climbing to levels not seen since records began.

The numbers are awkward for the government. More than half a million people arrived in Britain in 2010. Only a quarter of a million left. That means that net immigration – the difference between the two numbers – stood at a record-breaking 252,000 people. That is equivalent to adding a city the size of Nottingham in a single year.

Why such a gap between target and reality? The government argues that recently introduced anti-immigration measures will just take time to work. Immigration minister Damien Green says the government has taken ‘swift action’ and that numbers are beginning to decline.

But many analysts think the government is limited in what it can do. This latest jump in net immigration, they point out, was really driven by immigration from within the EU – which the government cannot do anything about – and a big drop in emigration. The number of people arriving has not changed, but fewer people are leaving to balance the numbers out.

Even so, immigration is such a divisive and emotional issue that ministers feel they have to be seen to be taking it seriously. Opponents of mass immigration, worried about increased competition for jobs and falling wages for UK-born workers, will continue to feel angry if numbers don’t go down.

But many economists and business people feel the opposite. They say immigration is crucial for Britain’s wealth; that immigrants are good workers who make a valuable contribution to society and that efforts to cut immigration are already hurting hard-pressed employers just as the UK faces a new period of recession.

Bitter debate

This, however, is a debate that runs deeper than economics. Britain should let more people in, say some immigration advocates, for moral reasons above all: because everyone should enjoy the privileges that come from living in a rich country, not just the lucky few who happen to have been born there. The world would be better if everyone could live and work wherever they liked.

Not so fast, say their opponents. By letting in too many people, you would risk destroying the qualities that make the UK attractive in the first place. Unrestricted immigration would put too much strain on the country’s social fabric. British values and culture are important, they argue, and could not withstand the arrival of too many people from overseas.

You Decide

  1. Do you think more people should be let into your country or fewer? Why?
  2. At the moment, the biggest factor in how rich, healthy and happy a person can be is not who they are but where they were born. How do you feel about this? What, if anything, would you do about it?

Some People Say...

“A truly fair world would have no borders at all.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is immigration a new thing for the UK?
Not really. In fact, England is named after the Angles (immigrants from Germany); Scotland is named after the Scots (immigrants from Ireland) and the name 'Wales' originally means 'foreign'.
Then there were the Normans I suppose?
Exactly. Then Jews, Lombards, Hanseatic merchants, Flemish weavers, Walloons, Gypsies, Palatines, Huguenots – and that's all before the end of the 18th Century.
And were these waves of immigrants a good thing or a bad thing?
Some were bad. Vikings, for example, had a bad habit of burning churches and sailing off with people's cattle. In general, though, immigrants have brought new skills, new ideas and new inspiration to Britain's shores. Geniuses like George Handel, Hans Holbein, V. S. Naipaul and Zaha Hadid were all immigrants, to name just a few.

Word Watch

Net immigration
Each year, thousands of people arrive in the UK, but thousands also leave. Net immigration is what's left over after you subtract the number of departures from the number of arrivals. In general, in economics, the word 'net' means 'after deductions'. The opposite is 'gross', meaning 'before deductions'.
Within the EU
Immigration rose significantly after 2004, when eight new nations joined the EU. People from these countries, the so-called 'A8', are allowed to live and work in Britain without restriction.
Falling wages
If there are more workers competing for fewer jobs, classical economic theory predicts that wages should go down. In practice, it is less straightforward. For one thing, wages in the UK cannot drop below the official minimum wage. For another, it is often reported that immigrant workers do jobs that native Britons are unwilling to do.


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