Photo by LEON NEAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The government must deal with legal immigration

Small boats have not caused Britain’s record migration levels

Artillery Row

With so much bluster around immigration, it can sometimes be useful to reflect on the raw statistics.

According to the latest estimates, 1.2 million people immigrated to the UK in 2022 — that’s more than double the population of Manchester in a single year. This staggering figure represents a 280 per cent increase in the annual rate of immigration since 1995. 16.8 per cent of people living in Britain today were born abroad.

At the same time, no British government has ever been elected on a manifesto promising higher immigration. Recent governments, indeed, have promised to lower it. The latest polls from YouGov suggest that 60 per cent of Britons believe that immigration has been too high in the last 10 years; just nine per cent say that it’s been too low.

Despite this, our political debate around immigration focuses almost solely on illegal immigration. Over and over, we hear about plans to stop small boat crossings, but there appears to be no political appetite for reducing legal migration.

The simple fact is this: legal immigration is a far bigger problem for Britain than illegal immigration. For every immigrant that came to Britain illegally in 2022, twenty-three immigrants came here legally.

The mainstream’s disproportionate focus on illegal immigration is an attempt to placate a frustrated public without needing to address the issue head-on. With pressure to hand out more visas from stakeholders in the Department for Health and Social Care, the Office for Budget Responsibility and the UK’s university sector, it’s simply easier to nod along and focus on the boats landing at Dover.

The result is a confused attempt to address the problems of immigration solely through the lens of illegal migration, with a laser-focus on “control” and “enforcing the law”.

To some extent, public frustration does stem from a feeling that the government no longer has control of our nation’s borders, hence this political focus on small boats. Almost everybody agrees that we should at least be able to decide who is coming into the country, and for how long.

However, this narrative ignores the fact that there are substantive concerns about the tangible impact that mass migration is having on our country, and the immense pressure that it is putting on our public services. The biggest contributor to these issues is legal migration, not small boat crossings.

The sheer scale of migration has made healthy integration difficult

Between 2010 and 2020, there were nearly seven million new GP registrations by migrants in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, despite considerable existing strain on the National Health Service. Meanwhile in schools, more than 1.6 million state school pupils in England do not speak English as a first language; only 36 per cent of these pupils were assessed as “fluent” in English, as of February 2020. That’s to say nothing of the impact that migration has had on our housing crisis — immigration between 1991 and 2016 boosted house prices in England by 21 per cent, according to the Government’s own analysis.

The sheer scale of migration has also made healthy integration difficult, particularly without any deliberate attempt by governments to ensure that new immigrants have views compatible with the British mainstream.

The results are clear. It’s estimated that as many as 137,000 women and girls in the UK are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation, a problem which previously did not exist in Britain. In recent years, we’ve also seen an increase in forced marriages — as many as five per week — most of which take place within immigrant communities.

When Batley’s Muslim community pressures a local school to suspend a teacher for showing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, that is a failure of legal mass migration. When almost half of social housing in London is occupied by those born abroad, that is a failure of legal mass migration. When grooming gangs in Rotherham and Telford are ignored by police for fear of being labelled racist for acknowledging the problem, that is a failure of legal mass migration.

None of this was inevitable. Successive governments have chosen to increase immigration as a sticking-plaster solution to fundamental economic and social issues. Instead of investing in costly training programmes or encouraging the private sector to use technology to make itself more efficient, governments of both parties have instead chosen to import cheap foreign labour, squeezing the wages of British workers in the process. Since 2010, about 348,000 UK-based applicants were refused a place at a nursing college. Was importing our NHS workforce from abroad instead really the right solution?

It’s not just workforce shortages — immigration is touted as the silver bullet to all of our national ills. Second-rate universities are kept afloat by ever-growing scores of international students, whilst domestic working-class students are shut out. Rather than encouraging family formation as an antidote to our ageing population, we have relied on immigration to make up for the demographic deficit. Despite the repeated insistence that immigration drives growth, our economy continues to languish, with GDP per capita lower than in 2008.

None of this has been helped by the scourge of chain migration, or the expansion of access to family visas by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Nearly seven per cent of the 1.2 million who came here in 2022 did so on family visas.

The result of all of this is frayed social fabric and unsustainable pressure on public services. We won’t fix this problem by fiddling at the margins or obsessing over small boats. Put simply, tackling immigration must mean taking substantive political steps to kick our addiction to legal immigration. It must mean reforming our university system to end reliance on international students, raising the income threshold for work visas, and putting a stop to automatic family visas; it should also mean deporting those who come to this country and commit crimes. Recognising this fact, and acting on it quickly, could be the Tory Party’s salvation — doing so would allow them to tap into widespread public frustration about the current state of affairs.

Failing to do so could spell the Party’s doom. Voters will only wait so long for Conservatives to honour their promises before looking elsewhere. The time for platitudes is over — now is the time for action.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover