Migrationwatch’s 70 million cap proposal is dangerous and unfeasible

MigrationWatch’s e-petition calling for a 70 million person cap on population sets a dangerous precedent, is damaging for our economy and unrealisable.

Ruth Grove-White is a policy officer at the Migrants’ Rights Network

The new e-petition masterminded by MigrationWatch and reported on across today’s newspapers may be in-step with a proportion of public opinion, but will provoke heated debate.

The petition argues that ‘mass immigration’ has been permitted, contributing to the Office of National Statistics’s predictions that the UK population will hit 70 million within 20 years.

It calls for the government to:

“Take all necessary steps to get immigration down to a level that will stabilize our population as close to the present level as possible and, certainly, well below 70 million.”

The intention is that 100,000 signatures will be gathered, potentially provoking a debate in parliament on the issue in the near future.

Here are three reasons why we disagree with the assertions made in the MigrationWatch petition:

1) The UK should avoid introducing a population policy by stealth

Historic and contemporary attempts to control population size in countries across the world, from mandatory birth control to experimental eugenics, have been highly controversial.

One lesson that most politicians have learned is that attempting to control population levels is often asking for trouble. The UK currently does not have a policy on what a desirable, or undesirable, population level should be – and rightly so, because history has taught us that this can be dangerous ground indeed.

So calls for a UK population ceiling of 70 million are extremely problematic. Basic economics tells us that there is simply no inherent reason why having a population of 70 million would be any better, or worse, for the UK than the current population of 62 million.

The test of a population size is in how resources are distributed across the population – and with a growing gap between rich and poor in the UK there are quite some issues to address already here. Calls to slash immigration should not be a way of side-stepping bigger questions about the well-being of our society, whatever size the population is.

2) Immigration cannot be switched on and off at the push of a button

Although it has not advocated a population limit of 70 million, the coalition government has had the explicit aim of reducing net migration to the UK since May 2010. One year and a half on, despite a host of restrictive measures including the cap on economic migration, net immigration levels  have risen by 21% in 2009 to hit 239,000 in 2010.

The MigrationWatch e-petition calls for ‘all necessary steps’ to reduce immigration levels, towards a drop in population growth – but what would this actually mean in practice? In fact, there aren’t many tools left in the policy box that are not already being employed towards the goal of cutting net migration levels.

The latest batch of ONS immigration statistics showed that net immigration levels in 2010 were largely a story of declining emigration, rather than a surge in immigration. The UK also saw an increase in net migration from Eastern Europe – again largely due to a drop in European nationals leaving the UK. Due to freedom of movement, migration within the EU cannot be curbed without effectively rewriting the UK’s relationship with the European Union.

The message is that immigration levels are subject to huge fluctuation, and policy-makers are simply limited in what they can do to control them.

3) Immigration will continue to be a necessary part of the UK’s future

The MigrationWatch petition paints a bleak picture of recent immigration, as compromising “our quality of life” and putting pressure “on our public services”. But immigration to the UK over past decades has played a significant role in stimulating economic growth, generating tax revenue and powering the development of our public services.

Evidence indicates that the fiscal impact of immigration has been positive, with East European immigration in particular making a positive contribution to the public purse despite an overall budget deficit in the UK.

More than this, looking into the future there is no way around it: immigration will continue to be critical. Universities, businesses and public service providers have been vocally protesting against ongoing cuts to immigration levels, which they argue will have devastating economic impacts on them and, more widely, to economic recovery in the UK.

With immigration worth billions to the UK, policies which enable migrant workers, students, families, and others to come here must continue to play a key role into the future.

Ultimately, there is every reason why immigration policies should be carefully reviewed in terms of their impact on communities and migrants themselves in the UK. But the messages coming from MigrationWatch seem more likely to whip up fears about immigration and population levels than to really move towards an immigration policy fit for the future.

See also:

How to create a Telegraph migration scare storyMatt Cavanagh, September 9th 2011

Express and Mail fail the migration stats testSunder Katwala, August 26th 2011

New Migration Watch report misses opportunity for balanced debate on migrationRuth Grove-White, February 22nd 2011

More misleading Mail migration claimsSarah Mulley, October 29th 2010

More misleading claims about migrationSarah Mulley, June 3rd 2010

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