The case for immigration control

Well, there have been for me. That was my first reaction when I saw the headlines. There have been for me.

Today, after a new report from a House of Lords committee, I am being asked to believe that immigration has no economic benefits. I am sorry, but I can't.

It's ironic, this. I am strongly for immigration control. I think there are important arguments, vital arguments, for limiting the numbers of new migrants. It's just that the idea that there are no economic benefits to immigration isn't among them.

Let me take you through my case carefully. The House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs has examined the available evidence on the economic impact of immigration. The media coverage suggests that the report has shredded the argument of those who believe imigration boosts prosperity. It's a big event this. But read the report and it is clear it hasn't come close to shredding anything.

First, from reading the news you might have gained the impression that no one benefits economically from immigration. But the report doesn't say that. On the contrary, it states that “immigration creates significant benefits for immigrants and their families”. That's what I meant when I said there had been been benefits for me. My father came here as a stateless and penniless refugee. Is it so wrong of me to count the fact that we are no longer penniless or stateless as a benefit?

The second impression you may have gained is that immigration has failed to increase the income per head of the existing resident population. But the report does not reach that conclusion, either. It does not have the data to do so.

The Lords report suggests that the overall impact of immigration on GDP per head has been close to zero. But this doesn't mean the impact on every person in the country has been zero. Some may have increased their income, some not. If immigrants earn more than the average, then for existing residents income per head has gone down. But if immigrants earn less than the average it means income per head for existing residents has gone up. And don't you think this is more likely?

So, on the very figures in the report, immigration has probably resulted in an increase in the income per head of existing residents. Which, if you think about it, makes sense.

I would expect the arrival of new immigrants has helped Britain to become a more vibrant, competitive economy. It seems to me likely that immigration will increase choice and open up working practices to new influences. This goes along with the report's admission that many business witnesses spoke favourably of the motivation of the immigrant workforce and with its conclusion that “immigration keeps labour costs lower” and that this “also benefits consumers”.

But doesn't the report firmly stamp on the idea that there are any such dynamic effects from immigration? No. That's another of the things it doesn't say.

What the authors have to say about such effects is this: “We found no systematic empirical evidence to suggest that net immigration creates significant dynamic benefits for the resident population in the UK.” And they add: “This does not necessarily mean that such effects do not exist.”

And then there's the issue of unemployment. Does the report say that immigration causes unemployment for certain groups? Again, no. It merely concludes, after reviewing various studies, that “the available evidence is insufficient to draw clear conclusions about the impact of immigration on unemployment in the UK”. It did find a “small negative impact” on the wages of low-paid residents but said that a significant proportion of the losers are previous immigrants.

So given all this, what makes me such a strong proponent of immigration control? Not economics, but social cohesion.

Human beings have evolved as co-operative creatures. The reason for this is that we have learnt that engaging in reciprocal acts of charity and compassion is a good biological strategy. But there is an unfortunate dark side to this. We reciprocate the altruism of those we expect to deal with again, those who will be in a position to return our favours. Towards others - strangers, those not in our clan - we have a tendency to be aggressive, even violent. Indeed, some of our co-operative strategies may have developed in order to allow us to outwit other clans.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the progress of civilisation has been the slow improvement in this tendency to violence against strangers. A study by the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley shows that the proportion of males killed in warfare in Europe and the US in the 20th century is vastly smaller than that killed in a wide range of ancient tribal societies over a similar period. Even taking account of two world wars.

Yet this progress is halting and the situation always delicate. Integrating strangers is hard for them and hard for the natives. It takes time, it has to be done sensitively. I believe it to be beneficial and I think our attitude should be liberal, tolerant, suffused with mutual respect.

This is made harder if we rush headlong into it, failing to stop along the way to ask permission, making changes so quickly we have no time to plan for them and no plan to adjust to them, adding new immigrants so fast that it makes the slow process of integration impossible.

That's the real problem, your Lordships.

Daniel Finkelstein