Immigration is changing Britain. This is not merely a theory – it’s statistical fact. Back in 2004, less than a decade ago, one in 11 of those living in Britain were born abroad. Today the proportion is one in eight – 12.4%.
And, just as is the case for economic growth and productivity, the immigration picture varies throughout the country. Some 42% of London’s population was born outside the UK, compared to just 5% in the North of England.
Though more attention tends to be focused on the flows of immigration – in other words people entering and leaving the country, the gradually-changing make-up of the UK population represents a significant shift – both in social and economic terms.
On the one hand, there’s the question of how much immigrants cost Britain’s welfare state. A quarter of new-born babies in Britain last year had non-UK-born mothers – the highest proportion since records began in 1969.
But you can only really get a clear sense of the absolute impact by taking a step back and comparing the cost of immigration with the related income – the taxes these new members of the population pay.
Research from the OECD shows that immigrants actually bring in over £7bn more than they cost. That’s the equivalent of a penny off the basic rate of income tax.
There are other economic arguments in favour: Free movement of labour is usually good news for businesses, since it allows them to attract workers from all over the world, not merely locals.
But there are clearly challenges as well. Immigration increases GDP (though not necessarily GDP per capita), but it also increases the demand for housing – a real problem in a country facing a chronic shortage of property. And more potential workers means more competition for British employees.
In pure statistical terms, immigrants work harder than their UK counterparts. Some 71% of foreign nationals are economically active, compared with 67% of UK nationals. They are better-qualified: 38% of non UK-born people in Britain have degrees, compared with 30% of UK nationals.
And contrary to popular opinion, they are not just plumbers. The biggest proportion of immigrants actually work in finance, followed by health, then retail, then manufacturing.
According to the OECD half of all immigrants hired in Britain are high-skilled – and the proportion is increasing.
This has had an undeniable impact on Britons’ job prospects. Since the start of the crisis in 2008, seven British workers have lost their jobs for every one non-British worker to have lost theirs.
Some are likely to see this as an argument against immigration. However, the economic message is just as significant. Britons need to work harder if they want to compete. That’s the inevitable consequence when you’re competing against a whole world’s worth of workers, rather than just one country.