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One of the more interesting dynamics in British politics in recent years has been the rise of UKIP – the UK Independence Party. UKIP might still be a minority party (the latest Guardian poll projection forecasts it to win three out of 650 seats in the next parliament), however the apparent electoral allure of its anti-immigration rhetoric has forced the bigger, mainstream parties to talk tough about migrants.

Writing on The Conversation, UCL economist Ian Preston summarises the party positions as follows: ‘Labour says the number of low-skilled immigrants is too high and points to no high-skilled categories where they’d welcome an increase. Both the Conservatives and UKIP want migration to be lower overall. In their 2010 manifesto, the Conservatives proposed to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands – a “goal” which the coalition government dramatically missed. This time around, the party refers only to an “ambition”.’

The messages in the manifestos are in keeping with public concerns. Voters list immigrants and immigration among their top issues, according to Ipsos Mori, while NatCen’s 2013 British Social Attitudes survey finds 77% of people wanting a reduction in immigration, with 56% wanting it to be reduced by a large amount.

However, the facts about immigration suggest these fears might be overblown. Ahead of the general election, the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) and The Conversation convened a panel of experts for an ‘evidence-based debate’ on the topic of immigration. Here are five things we learned during the course of the 90-minute discussion.

1. There aren’t as many immigrants in the UK as people think

RSS executive director Hetan Shah introduced the event by referencing earlier polling the society had conducted with Ipsos Mori, which found that the average British citizen believed immigrants constituted 24% of the population. But the real figure is closer to 12.8%, said Professor John Salt, of UCL’s Migration Research Unit, who gave attendees a quick overview on the state of immigration in the UK today. That 12.8% – 8 million people – is based on country of birth data. Some 4.7 million immigrants are in work, which works out at 15.5% of the working population.

2. Accurately measuring immigration is hard

There are a number of sources of data on the hundreds of thousands of people entering and leaving the UK each year, explained Salt, though none of them are flawless. The primary source, the International Passenger Survey (IPS), each year interviews 2300 people coming in and 1700 going out. However, the IPS only picks up on those people who are intending to stay/leave for a year or more, and, as Salt pointed out, people’s intentions can change.

Other sources of migration statistics include the Office for National Statistics’ Long-term International Migration series, which draws on the IPS and other sources of data. Then there are records of National Insurance numbers and Home Office visa figures – but each of these sources measure slightly different things. This can create confusion, as Salt demonstrated by presenting the audience with three different figures for net migration in 2007: 209 000, 233 000 and 273 000. Each number is technically correct, he said, but each is different thanks to adjustments made to the data over time.

‘Politicians are always asking for better data,’ said Salt, ‘but the only way we’ll get better data on international migration will be to establish a population register.’

3. Immigrants have minimal effects on employment and wages

When NatCen’s 2013 British Social Attitudes survey asked respondents to weigh up the costs and benefits of immigration, 47% said that immigration had had a negative impact on the economy. However, speaking at the immigration debate, NatCen’s Naomi Jones explained that opinion within British society is divided, with 60% of people with a higher education seeing economic benefits to immigration, compared to 17% of people who left school at the earliest opportunity. So what’s the truth about the economic impact of immigration?

UCL’s Ian Preston, also a debate panellist, explained that there are many different ways to explore that question, but looked at purely from the perspective of employment and wages, he said the evidence points to there being minimal effect. Referencing an analysis by LSE’s Jonathan Wadsworth, Preston said that there was no apparent relationship between changes in immigration and changes in unemployment in different areas of the UK. Wadsworth also found little evidence of an association between immigration and wages, though Preston pointed to other studies that have detected a modest downward pressure on salaries for those at the lowest end of the pay scale.

4. Facts about immigration are being heard

A fact-checking mentality has helped move the immigration debate on in recent years, said Patrick Worrall, a journalist who writes for the Channel 4 FactCheck blog. ‘There was a time when a lot of the rhetoric was about benefit tourism, but that has kind of disappeared,’ he said, ‘probably because of a lack of statistical evidence to back it up.’ Next came a focus on economic impacts, and these arguments have since been addressed through published research produced by the likes of UCL’s Centre for the Research and Analysis of Migration, and other institutions.

‘Lines of attack are being knocked down one by one,’ said Worrall. But the discussion has shifted again, he explained. ‘It’s getting vaguer: house prices, housing, and the physical overcrowding of Britain are where the debate is shifting to now.’ 

5. Some factoids won’t go down without a fight

Worrall wrapped up the debate with an anecdote involving his wife, who is Lithuanian. ‘When I take her to my home town, people are really kind and welcoming and complimentary. And they tell her: “It’s just a shame you weren’t here a few years ago… because a lot of the local swans have been killed and eaten by Eastern Europeans.”

‘There’s a few problems with this theory,’ Worrall said. “No-one has an oven big enough to cook a swan in, very few people have the upper body strength to overpower an adult swan, and the number of swans hasn’t changed.’

Is the media to blame for the proliferation of these factoids and other opinions – whether true or false – that people hold on immigration? The safe answer is, we don’t know, said Madeleine Sumption of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory. ‘We know there is a correlation between the news sources people consume and their views on immigration. But it is very difficult analytically to find a way of working out whether people choose the sources that reflect what they already think, or whether they have been influenced by them,’ she said.

‘This is still very much an unresolved question in political science.’


Audio and slides from the debate are online here. You can also review the #immigrationfacts discussion on Twitter via Storify.

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