Immigration has helped to keep the British economic recovery on course, argues John Cridland, the CBI director-general
As a proud Bostonian, the change in my Lincolnshire home town over the past decade is striking. West Street is now interspersed with vibrant Polski skleps selling an array of Eastern European goods. And while it was unusual to hear so many languages spoken when I was a boy, Slav languages are now being taught in local schools.
I understand that immigration has social and cultural impacts that can’t be ignored. But as head of the UK’s biggest business group, I am concerned about where the debate on immigration is heading. I know business leaders share this unease.
Across the political spectrum, there is a mismatch between rhetoric and reality. Immigration has helped keep the wheels of this recovery turning by plugging skills shortages. This has led to more jobs for British people and driven growth. Without free movement of workers, the recovery would grind to a halt.
Our hospitals and care homes couldn’t function without overseas workers; building sites that we need to deliver more homes and big infrastructure projects, such as the roll-out of broadband, would also stall.
EU migration also has a positive impact on the UK’s fiscal position. Research from University College London shows that over the decade since 2001 EU migrants made a positive net contribution of £2,732 per person per year.
Businesses benefit too, with 63pc of CBI members saying free movement of labour has been beneficial. And that free movement cuts both ways: well over a million Britons live and work in the EU.
Of course, there are concerns around immigration. Here are the most common.
One most immigrants to the UK are from Eastern Europe. While this may have been the case a decade ago, recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest many are from countries such as France, Germany and Italy.
Two EU migrants are unskilled. In fact, many are well-educated and plug shortages in sectors such as IT and engineering.
Three unemployment is higher due to EU migration. The reality is the UK has an excellent record of creating jobs and the employment rate has risen to 73pc among the best in Europe and just short of a record high for Britain.
Four immigration depresses wages. The latest report from the Migration Advisory Committee an independent public body that advises the Government found that the link between immigration and pay is weak.
Five migrants do not come here to work, but for our benefits system. Data from the Office for National Statistics show two thirds of EU citizens in the year to 2013 migrated for work, and a fifth for study.
Six some migrants abuse our benefits system. We agree that we need to ensure the system rewards those who come to work, not the few who do not contribute. There is no European social security system, so all member states are free to decide who is insured under their legislation and which benefits are given. And we should work with other countries to ensure that EU rules are fit for purpose.
Seven UK citizens are losing out. What we need is for the Government and businesses to help people here get the right skills to get into work. Businesses need to do more: from investing in apprenticeships and on-the-job training to getting stuck into schools and colleges and providing work experience.
We’ve seen proposals for restricting EU migration, from quotas to emergency brakes capping the number of National Insurance numbers. Since freedom of movement for workers is an essential part of the EU, changing this will be tough. Then there are the practicalities of restrictions. We’re not convinced it would be feasible to have controls just for low-skilled workers. That would mean checking whether anyone entering the UK was low-skilled, creating a bureaucratic permit system for all workers. As for denying national insurance numbers to those arriving from Europe that’s likely to bring a rise in illegal working, which would depress wages.
The CBI is clear. We support the Government’s attempts to make Europe more competitive and open. And our members are clear: they want the UK to stay in a reformed EU because that’s the best guarantee of jobs, growth and prosperity.
John Cridland is director-general of the CBI