Who can blame Bulgarians and Rumanians for wanting to use their recently acquired entitlement to travel across the continent to seek work outside their poor homelands? It’s not their aspirations that are the problem; but our ability to match them to Britain’s need for labour.
Having woefully underestimated the tide of immigrants from Poland and elsewhere in the first wave of new EU entrants, the Government has now imposed restrictions on access to our labour market. Immigrants from the new member states must have secured a job in advance, possess a needed skill or both and employers face heavy fines if they employ those who shouldn’t be here.
The new measures are welcome, though likely to be insufficient. Strict controls on immigration where we still have full control i.e. from beyond the EU, are needed for many reasons; ranging from fears about the exploitation of immigrant workers from developing nations to concerns about the excessive demand placed on Britain’s health, housing and education infrastructure by incomers. As David Cameron and David Davis have rightly said, in determining the level of controlled immigration from outside the EU we should take account of all of these factors.
Essentially, the myth that – regardless of the cultural or social consequences – the current level of immigration should be maintained for the long-term good of Britain’s economy must be dispelled. In fact there is real doubt about whether Britain needs any more unskilled workers; because as the number of unskilled immigrants has grown the demand for unskilled labour is plummeting. The Government estimates that by 2020 the number of unskilled jobs will fall to less than 600,000 – that’s 3 million fewer than today!
Meanwhile, the latest estimates show that more than one and a quarter million young Britons are NEETs. That is to say that they are between the ages of 16 and 24 years and not in education, training or employment. Their number has rocketed since 1997 and, as each year more than 40,000 16 year-olds complete their school days illiterate or innumerate, the supply of new NEETs shows no sign of dwindling. These youngsters deserve better.
So, given these trends and the resultant increasing competition for jobs, it is surprising that some businesses continue to paint unlimited unskilled immigration as an economic positive. Perhaps it is because they disregard the fact that although immigration adds to overall production it also adds to overall population. A recent report by Migrationwatch found that when this is taken into account, the positive economic impact of immigration is minimal, amounting to 4p a week for each person in Britain. The BBC’s economics editor, Evan Davis (no less!) welcomed Migrationwatch’s attempt to assess how immigration affected an individual’s wealth, rather than relying on government figures relating to the overall size of the economy.
There are also good reasons for believing that dependence on cheap immigrant labour is bad news for our future economic prosperity. Businesses built on the shaky foundation of cheap labour are highly vulnerable because its supply is uncertain – given the possible future attraction of employment in other countries. What’s worse, such businesses may be less likely than others to invest in the kind of labour saving technology vital to their long-term competitiveness.
Our young people need a chance to work. Without jobs and with little opportunity to gain skills or esteem, the growing army of NEETs will become an underclass, detached from mainstream society, helpless and hopeless. Championing the cause of our desperate NEETs means it’s them we should choose to fill vacant jobs.