The economic impact of immigration

House of Lords maiden speech

by John Saxbee

from Signs of the Times, No. 32 - Jan 2009

Can I express gratitude to the Noble Lord, Lord Wakeham for this Report and for the way he has introduced it.  It is usual for Maiden Speeches to be non-controversial.  So whilst with regard to the Report before us I could challenge some of the data, conclusions and recommendations – especially insofar as they relate to immigration trends and economic realities with which I am most familiar in those parts of Lincolnshire dependent on migrant labour and guest workers for the efficient conduct of agricultural and food processing operations – I will in fact restrict myself to offering the least controversial of all possible contributions to this debate:  immigrants are people, human beings, made as much in the image of God as any of us here.

Towards the end of his magisterial history of immigration to Britain entitled Bloody Foreigners, Robert Winder laments that “it is unsettling that these groups are discussed as if they are things rather than people” or, in other words, and in relation to the particular issues before us this afternoon, they are people rather than mere economic units.

Now this is not in any way to imply that the noble Lords who have worked so hard on this Report are anything other than highly sensitive to the human stories, feelings and passions which characterise immigrants, as they do the rest of us.  Rather, it is about the risk we run when we ask colleagues to evaluate any human activity in purely economic terms. Be it pastimes such as painting or potholing;  or occupations such as banking or bread-making; or vocations such as Nursing or Ordained Ministry – or, dare I say it, even the work of this House – if evaluated in purely economic terms we run the risk of de-humanising those whose humanity we share. Not everything that counts can be counted;  not everything that matters can be measured;  and not everything that is valuable can be valued at a price.

This Report does exactly what it says on the cover:  it addresses the economic impact of immigration, and its authors are at pains to point out that “non-economic considerations such as impacts on cultural diversity and social cohesion are important, but these are outside the scope of our inquiry”.

Yet even so this disclaimer proves difficult to sustain as the human face of immigration cannot be suppressed – they have families, says the Report, they have children, says the Report, they live to grow old, they like to socialise with their compatriots – all these are indications of their humanity.

Yet because the remit of the Report is restricted to economic considerations, whenever these human characteristics are mentioned they tend to be seen in negative terms.  Why? Because the disclaimer has dictated in advance that, for the purposes of this Report, immigrants are economic units to be evaluated on a cost-benefit analysis which inevitably tends to see their humanity as a problem to be solved rather than something to be celebrated.

Of course we must also take seriously the extent to which the humanity of the resident population is affected by the arrival - sometimes in large numbers, as in the Diocese of Lincoln - of men, women and children from other parts of the European Union and beyond. Sometimes the effects are disturbing as the ebb and flow of human interaction creates friction leading to antagonism and abuse – both verbal and physical. Sometimes at the root of all this are deep-seated fears about jobs and housing and benefits which require a good deal of myth-busting to be dispelled and this Report is a valuable contribution towards ensuring that reality rather than rhetoric drives national and local government priorities when it comes to providing full, fair and appropriately targeted funding so that communities can flourish rather than flounder in the face of demographic change and increasing social diversity.

All this underlines the importance of reliable economic analysis and accurate statistical data, but how easy it is for the humanity behind a statistic to be obscured when that statistic is pressed into the service of purely economic considerations.

Lincolnshire County Council has a well-developed New Arrivals strategy based on recent research and a wide range of data sets.  This concludes that “despite the tensions outlined above, recent research suggests that 75% of the indigenous population ‘did not mind migrant workers living locally’. There appears to be a growing understanding that new cultures, fresh perspectives and hardworking people are a good thing for Lincolnshire.” This is all the more remarkable given the often hysterical headlines which characterise much newspaper coverage of immigration and its impact on our communities.  A recently published “Welcome to Lincolnshire” booklet, available in all our key languages, has done a great deal to ensure that new arrivals know themselves to be valued for their all-round contribution and, of course, this adds value economically as well as in other ways.

Way back in the mists of time, my forebears came to these shores possibly as Viking invaders, but more likely as Anglo-Saxon settlers.   They might or might not have left their mark on the economic landscape of this green and pleasant land.  But I like to think that over time they experienced hospitality rather than hostility as their distinctive humanity was given the chance not to enrage but to enrich the local population in ways that were always more than merely economic.

Immigrants and émigrés are human beings.  As befits a maiden speech, that is pretty non-controversial, but in the context of a debate in which the bottom line is money rather than humanity, perhaps it is still worth saying. 

John Saxbee is the Bishop of Lincoln and MCU President.