IMMIGRATION: Beware newspapers in pursuit of the answer they want to find

The Independent says immigration doesn’t cause unemployment, the Telegraph says it does. Which one is right?

‘There is no link between rising immigration and rising unemployment, independent economists have found – contradicting persistent claims from anti-immigration activists and politicians that an influx of foreign nationals into the UK in recent years has led to more British-born workers on the dole.’    The Independent this morning.

‘A Briton is “displaced” from the labour market for every four extra migrants from outside the EU that arrive in the UK, the Migration Advisory Committee (Mac) concluded. The report is the first official examination of the impact of immigration and showed it has kept resident workers out of jobs.’             The Daily Telegraph this lunchtime.

An initial observation to make is that while the Indie’s interpretation of the niesr research is highly counter-intuitive (if people immigrate and take jobs previously advertised, how can they not be reducing job availability?) when the Poles immigrated during the 2005-08 period and nearly 800,000 of them found ’employment’, the ‘rate’ of employment didn’t rise at all…itself highly suggestive of wages being paid ‘on the black’.

But then, reducing the availability of jobs is not ‘taking jobs away’ from those who don’t want them; if they are unfilled, the logical conclusion is that resident Brits don’t want them….unless of course the job is in Ipswich, and Wayne lives in Arbroath – in which case, he doesn’t know about it.

On and on it goes: there is physics, sub-atomic physics, and unemployment statistics. They are never straightforward, and any news medium with an agenda can use carefully sloppy terms in order to make one case against another.

The first thing to note about these two studies being trumpeted by opposing news title today is that we are effectively comparing spanners with bananas.

The Indie’s champion uses national insurance registration data, the underlying assumption here being that there is nobody in Britain being paid in under-the-counter cash. This idea is up there with the tooth fairy in terms of credibility. Its data covers mainly 2003-2010, is largely pure-maths in approach, and looks for a narrow migrant/job correlation. Although at times the algebraic equations are impenetrable, the general style is lucid, and its honesty about potential flaws impeccable.

The Telegraph’s study looks at a much longer period (1995 to 2011), and is concerned with every type of socio-economic impact of immigration, leading to conclusions about gdp as a whole. It uses net migration and unemployment stats, and is essentially a cost-benefit analysis based on economic and fiscal effects rather than a purely statistical correlation between between two mathematical signs in an equation. It is crammed full of yes-and-no-with-reservations, and while less technically challenging, is at one and the same time less clear in explaining just what exactly the researchers did.

Despite what either newspaper says the research findings are, I can tell you, that (a) the Indie’s niesr study suggests there is little or no effect upon the official employment rate between registered migrant and resident workers; whereas (b) the Telegraph’s MAC study done for the Home Office says that migration has no effect in economically happy times, but has a negative impact on job availability when times are harder. My own conclusion – having spent much of the day traipsing through both studies – is that they tend to suggest the bleeding obvious.

As a tie-breaker, however, this extract from the MAC study’s conclusions from its Chairman Professor David Metcalfe is, I think, quite a telling summary:

‘When calculating the NPV (net contribution of immigration) some estimate of displacement of British workers needs to be made….the present assumption of zero displacement is not always correct’.

This seems to me on balance to be a points victory over 15 rounds to the MAC study naturally favoured by the Torygraph. But the simple answer to the headline at the top of this piece is ‘neither of them’. Because neither study (quite rightly) dares to suggest that all immigrants at all times always have a good or bad effect on the nation’s economy, unemployment or health. Such a question is a daft one to ask in the first place: but then, that’s par for the course with those determined to make empirical data say what they believe. God help us from those who believe.

The best analogy for me about such things has always been the newspaper extract displayed above the West End theatre entrance following First Night reviews. Thus ‘A triumph of form over content not to be equalled – it should be missed by all those who understand there is still more to culture than yoghurt’ gets abbreviated to ‘A triumph not to be missed by all those who understand culture’.

There is also, of course, what both reports fail to say – because they weren’t asked to: if the optimal population of the UK is 55 million with a useful skill percentage of 90+%, then that’s what we should be aiming for. And we are never going to get that result by attracting still more skilled immigrants………while leaving the residents uselessly untrained. But then, such a conclusion is common sense, and has no need of empirical research to prove or disprove it.