UK politics continues to be dominated by Brexit. The British people, including many readers of the County Times may be thoroughly bored with the domination of our news by Brexit, I’m afraid it’s going to carry on for several years yet. Certainly, there will be no escape for those of us involved in politics. It’s the biggest issue that I’ve ever been involved with. This week, my Politically Speaking Column reflects on one aspect of the debate, last week’s immigration figures.
During the lead-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, one of the dominating issues of debate was migration into the UK. I have always thought it likely (though unprovable) that this issue was a major influence on what persuaded the people of the UK to vote Leave. At the time, net immigration was about 336,000 per annum. A certain level of immigration has always been part of what happens in Britain, and is generally beneficial, both economically and culturally. However, immigration on the scale it was in 2016 was not sustainable over the medium/long term. This remains my view today. I also thought that a vote to Leave would not have much impact on net immigration figures. I was mistaken about that, though not for the reasons I thought.
The first full year figures since the EU referendum has just been published and shows the level of net immigration falling by 32 per cent to 230,000 per annum, the sharpest decrease on record. Less than a half of net immigration into the UK comes from the EU. Well over half of it is from non EU countries. Also affecting the statistics is that at the same time there has been a significant net outward migration of UK citizens.
Of course we don’t know precisely why net immigration has fallen so significantly. In large part, it may be that the economies of the countries which have been the main source of immigration has prospered and are providing more jobs at home. The comparative attraction of wages in the UK has fallen. Undoubtedly, the fall in value of sterling, which happened as a consequence of the UK vote to Leave will also have made a big difference. Some of those who are opposed to the UK leaving the EU are suggesting the decision to Leave makes immigrants feel “less welcome”. There may even be some truth in the suggestion, largely because of its public repetition. Personally, I do not believe this to be a significant factor.
While net immigration figures have undoubtedly been unsustainably high over recent years, too sudden a reduction will cause serious problems for several sectors of our economy and public services. In particular, our social care sector is dependent on immigration. And the UK hospitality industry has been highly dependent on immigrant workers for many years. In the agriculture, horticulture and tourism related sectors, too sudden a reduction in migrant labour will have serious consequences. As the UK takes back control of immigration, we must not create an environment in which those wanting to work in the UK feel unwelcome. We need them.