Let’s cap this myth of overpopulation

The Balanced Migration group moans that Britain will need seven new cities to cope with an influx of immigrants. Well, let’s start building then.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Q: What happens when a Labour rebel, a Tory MP, a former Archbishop, a Muslim peer and an anti-migration campaigner form a cross-party group?

A: They propose a ‘one-in, one-out’ migration policy and call it ‘balanced’.

Unfortunately for non-EU citizens hoping to come to Britain – and for British businesses and public sector organisations – the new Balanced Migration group is not just a bad joke. It is the latest serious call for putting a cap on immigration into the UK. The group reiterates an idea that is widely accepted on both the right and the left today: Britain is overpopulated.

From the Malthusians at the Optimum Population Trust, to the cranks of the British National Party, to various House of Lords peers, green activists and government leaders, there is a widespread belief that Britain is buckling under the weight of Too Many People. The situation is said to be unsustainable and a threat to ‘social cohesion’, to the smooth running of public services, and to the future of the planet. So more migrants must be shunned.

Balanced Migration is chaired by Frank Field and Nicholas Soames, Labour and Conservative ministers respectively, and supported by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, and by the Muslim Labour peer, Lord Ahmed. This week, it put forward the latest panicked projections of the supposedly corrosive effects of population growth. Citing official figures, Balanced Migration says Britain would need to build seven new cities the size of Birmingham to house an estimated seven million incomers between now and 2031.

The prospect of Britain building seven new urban centres is envisioned as a nightmare scenario, of course, rather than as an exciting prospect. This reveals an essential truth about the overpopulation debate: there are not too many people in Britain; just too few decent cities, too much weak infrastructure, and a lot of poorly managed public services. Once again, what is presented as a demographic problem is essentially a political and social one, a lack of political will to remake Britain so that it can take more people and become a bigger, better country.

The Migration Group’s methods for avoiding the coming demographic apocalypse are outlined in a report that it published with the right-wing think tank Migrationwatch. It sets out a ‘new approach on controlling immigration’.

Field and Soames told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the ‘link between work permit and citizenship’ needs to be broken. They believe the government’s ‘open-door policy’ on migration needs to be reformed. In fact, the New Labour government’s new points-based system has already slammed the door on non-EU residents, allowing only the most highly skilled to come to Britain and work here. This has turned migration into a luxury pursuit for a small minority of the global population; hardly an ‘open-door policy’.

For Balanced Migration, however, this points system doesn’t go far enough. The group believes that even the quite small number of non-EU workers who are allowed into Britain should only be granted a four-year work permit. And when it expires, they should be told to go back to where they came from – or anywhere else, just so long as it’s not the UK. The fact that within a four-year period a migrant might find a career that he loves, and settle down and start a family here in the UK, seems to be of zero concern to the Malthusians of Balanced Migration.

Those who wish to stay on beyond their allotted four years should be subjected to another points system, argue Field, Soames and Co. Only a tiny number of the highest earners, or those with ‘unique skills’, would then have a shot at getting a British passport and becoming a British citizen. Balanced Migration’s suggested figure is 20,000 migrants-turned-citizens a year – and that, almost unbelievably, includes their dependants, too.

The aim, as the name of this new group suggests, is to ‘balance’ the number of people settling in Britain with the number of Britons emigrating, in order to create a net zero increase in population levels. Field and his gang seem to envision Britain as a giant nightclub, with a one-in, one-out policy at the door, with them and their fellow ministers playing the role of Border Bouncers checking everyone’s credentials. Inside the club, guests can spend their money, help keep the club afloat and contribute to the feelgood, diverse atmosphere, as immigrants do in the UK – but the bouncers will ensure that no one stays after hours.

The New Labour government’s immigration minister, Liam Byrne, has rejected the idea of a fixed cap on migration, just as he dismissed the UK House of Lords’ proposal for an annual cap earlier this year (see Immigration should be a political football, by Nathalie Rothschild). Yet this doesn’t mean the government is against limiting migration; it just doesn’t believe a fixed cap is a good way of doing it.

In order to gauge the best method for controlling migration without harming the economy too much, the government set up the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) last year. Yesterday, the MAC announced new proposals for controlling the number of non-EU foreign workers coming to the UK, and provided a list of occupations that such workers are allowed to pursue when they are here.

For example, non-EU maths and science teachers can work in Britain, but teachers in other subjects should not be allowed in. Only care workers earning at least £8.80 an hour – which is far above the average pay levels in the care sector – will be allowed in. Other jobs in the UK in which there are staff shortages, such as racehorse training, can also be covered by non-EU citizens. However, employers must leap over three ‘hurdles’ before they can employ non-EU workers, says MAC: the job has to be skilled; there has got to be a shortage of workers; and it has to be ‘sensible’ to bring in a non-EU worker to take up the position.

By arguing for a cap on immigration, Field and the rest are not only proposing to restrict freedom of movement, and threatening to stifle innovation and dynamism in the UK – they are also implying that the government can predict long-term demographic, economic and labour trends. Yet government predictions of population changes have proven unreliable many times in the past.

As David Aaronovitch pointed out in The Times (London) this week: ‘In 1955 government projections assumed a UK population in 1993 of 53million. The actual figure was five million more. The reason that the projection was so wrong was that it had not anticipated the baby boom of the 1960s. So for the 1965 projection, now knowing better, the assumption was made that by 2000 there would be a UK population of 75million. Birth rates fell; the 2000 population was 59million.’ (1)

Immigration patterns are also to a large extent unpredictable and uncontrollable. As economic and political realities change, so do people’s aspirations, desires and means of coping. For all the panic about Britain being swamped by Eastern Europeans when Eastern bloc countries joined the EU in 2004, recent economic growth over there has meant that large numbers are leaving Britain to return home.

Patterns of immigration and emigration, population size, the number of jobs and the people needed to fill them – none of these things are fixed, and outfits such as the Balanced Migration group or the MAC are not in a position to determine how they will look in the future. And ministers will not achieve their backward, zero-sum vision for population growth simply by restricting the number of foreigners settling in the UK. ‘Stabilising’ the British population would require more drastic measures. So perhaps we should introduce a Chinese-style one-child policy, prevent Britons who have moved abroad from returning home, or chuck out anyone with a foreign background? That should do it.

‘Putting a cap on immigration’ seems to be an easy way of scoring political points these days. It allows politicians to avoid responsibility for failing infrastructure and public services by blaming it on immigrants causing overcrowding. Here, the cap proposal is presented as a ‘balanced’ measure for dealing with what is often said to be a sensitive topic, and it is done in the name of protecting British workers and communities.

What truly is a waste of space are governmental committees devoted to predicting overpopulation apocalypse and churning out misconceived policy proposals.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

(1) Like house prices, immigration could fall too, The Times (London), 9 September 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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