Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Misleading statistics and the myth of "balanced" migration

On Monday, an All-Party group of MPs and peers, led by Labour's Frank Field, came forward to call for a policy of "balanced migration." According to Mr. Field, low-paid Britons have "disproportionately borne the cost of immigration, through pressure on wages, longer waiting lists for housing and increased demand for public services." As such, the group wants to cap the number of immigrants to the UK and match it against the number of emigrants. It has also suggested that the majority of immigrants should have to leave after four years.

Unsurprisingly, the right-wing press splashed this across their front pages with glee, exploring the details of the group's proposals - including a 56-page framework provided, predictably, by MigrationWatch - and taking only moments to sneer at quite reasonable comments by the likes of Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, that the group's proposals "completely ignore the positive contribution migrants make to life in the UK."

I have already dealt with both the economic arguments that immigrants cause "pressure on wages, longer waiting lists for housing and increased demand for public services", and the cultural argument that, as Mr Field put it, immigration leads to"a transformation of their neighbourhoods from settled working-class communities to societies they can barely recognise." The anti-immigration arguments never really change, so they need little rehashing here.

What I do want to address, though, is the way the anti-migration propagandists twist figures that either do not impact the argument or go against their viewpoint in order to scare people into believing that immigration is a bad thing. The Daily Mail printed the following table with their coverage of the story:

We'll set aside, for the moment, the pictures of poor and desperate people living in shanty towns in Calais, with the vain hope of moving to a better life in Britain, that give the article its context. The clear intention with these is to provide a specific, negative image of immigrants in readers' minds and we need not delve much deeper to see why the Mail has done this. What I want to examine for the moment are the figures the paper presents.

It states that, whilst the annual net migration (those coming in minus those going out) between 1982 and 1997 was 50,000, the net migration in 2004 was 244,000. There is no denying that this is a drastic increase, and there are two clear implications: first, that this problem has specifically arisen since New Labour took office, and second, that immigration is "spiralling out of control." What the figures don't show, however, is that the figures for 2004 are, overall, an anomaly. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that net migration fell for 2005 and 2006 to 200,000. The ONS also states that "[s]ince 1991 more immigrants are intending to stay in the UK for a shorter period of time. In 1991, 33 per cent of immigrants intended to stay for one or two years and this increased to 45 per cent by 2006." Many economic migrants reside here on a short-term basis, and much of the inflow from one year contributes to the outflow of the next. Moreover, increases in the number of British citizens emigrating are also dampening a trend that shows no signs of being permanent as it is.

That 68 percent of immigration in 2006 was from outside the EU is a largely irrelevant piece of information, unless it intends to tap into subconscious racism with the fear that non-EU equals black. Even this would be mere conjecture, however, as the same ONS figures cited above state that said non-EU migrants included 24,000 New Zealanders, 32,000 Americans, and 48,000 Australians. Any potential arguments about "cultures" or "socio-economic benefit" could hardly be applied to people from these countries.

The same applies to the fact that there are 1338 schools where more than half the pupils don't speak English as a first language. The obvious implication is that their inability in the language is slowing the progress of others. Where that is true, the answer is simple; invest more money either after-school classes or extra-curricular tutoring to help those pupils improve. However, this particular statistic says nothing of the level of competency these pupils have in their second language, and to suggest that the larger portion, if not all, are poor with it is at best dishonest.

When somebody says that 14 percent of prisoners are foreign nationals, the first question to ask is "what are they in for?" Given the amount of crimes that one can go to jail for, starting low with petty theft and minor drug offences, we can safely assume that the majority of that 14% are not rapists, murderers, and paedophiles. It should also be noted that they are not representative of foreign nationals as a whole, because people are individuals, responsible only for their own actions, and so this point remain irrelevant to an argument about immigration as a whole.

And finaly, because it can no longer be denied that immigrants benefit Britain rather than "bleeding us dry," the Mail tries to play this down by presenting the figure as 62 pence per week, per head. However, as clearly stated in the House of Lords' Economic Affairs Select Comittee report, this adds up to a staggering £2.5 billion average per year, with the figure often as much as £6 billion. Framing it as an amount per head is also misleading, as this money goes to the treasury in the form of tax and spent as all of our tax money is, so it can be argued that the benefit of 62 pence per week, per head in tax money is much greater than that of £62 per week, per head in income.

So, whilst the anti-immigration lobby get excited about the fact that, as the MigrationWatch blog puts it, "there is massive backing for a substantial cut in immigration levels from supporters of all parties and shows that a programme of ‘Balanced Migration’ into the UK could have a major effect on voting intentions in a future election," it would be worth remembering that most of their arguments are fallacious and their facts twisted purely to suit their needs.