Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  -  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.

Immigration and the UK – If There’s a Problem, What’s the Solution?

As the recent rise of the UK Independence Party has confirmed, immigration is consistently close to the top of popular concerns about life in modern Britain. But are those concerns justified? Should we continue to welcome economic migrants and refugees or is this country now ‘full up’? Is continuing immigration from both European Union countries and further afield depriving British people of jobs and housing – or is it essential to our prosperity? Do immigrants place too much of a burden on our welfare system – or do they contribute more than they benefit? Is our distinctively British culture and identity enriched or diluted by immigration?

What is the case for and against continuing immigration and what are its social and economic consequences? What does the data tell us? If there are problems, what are the solutions?

Sunder Katwala

British Future

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.

He was general secretary of the Fabian Society thinktank from 2003 to 2011 and was previously a leading writer and internet editor at The Observer, a research director of the Foreign Policy Centre and commissioning editor for politics and economics at the publisher Macmillan.

Sunder is married with four children.

His support for Everton and Southend United football clubs reflects an upbringing in Cheshire and Essex, though he was born in Doncaster, Yorkshire, to parents who came to Britain from India and Ireland to work for the NHS.

British Future is a new independent, non-partisan thinktank seeking to involve people in an open conversation which addresses people’s hopes and fears about identity and integration, migration and opportunity, so that we feel confident about Britain’s Future.

Professor David Coleman

Oxford University

Until his retirement in December 2013, David Coleman was Professor of Demography at Oxford University and Supernumerary Fellow in Human Sciences at St John’s College. He is now Professor Emeritus. He was formerly lecturer in Physical Anthropology at University College London and has worked for the UK Government, for the United Nations and elsewhere. He is an adviser to and co-founder of Migration Watch UK.

Professor Coleman’s research interests include the comparative demographic trends of the industrial world as well as immigration trends and policies, the demography of ethnic minorities and housing policy. He is the author of over 150 academic papers on demographic and migration topics.

The School of Human Sciences at Oxford University was founded in 1969 in recognition of the need for interdisciplinary understanding of fundamental issues and problems confronting contemporary societies.

Topics include human evolution and behaviour, molecular and population genetics, population growth and ageing, ethnic and cultural diversity and human interaction with the environment.


Balanced Immigration - Fair and Good for All

Can we restore trust in how we manage immigration in Britain? An effective approach needs to be principled, workable in the real world and capable of securing public consent.

The public is sceptical. Voters have heard politicians of both parties acknowledge that the migration system is not fit for purpose. They would prefer the numbers to fall and the pace of change to reduce, yet targets set to do that have been missed.

One simple explanation is that the politicians consistently refuse to do what the people demand. This seems to make the solution simple too: cut immigration sharply, bringing net migration as close to zero as possible.

But just as a group advocating a ‘balanced budget’ would be expected to set out its spending cuts and tax plans, those calling for ‘balanced migration’ – immigration brought down to the level of emigration – need to set out how that could happen so that the public could make an informed choice.

Given that there is no credible plan on offer to achieve this, it's an unconvincing argument.

First, failure to meet David Cameron’s current target - of net migration below 100,000 - has done more to erode trust than to rebuild it. So it is hard to see how replacing a missed target with an even tougher one would help.

Picking the wrong targets can be misleading too. Few people think that persuading many more Britons to emigrate should count as progress towards a policy of controlling immigration.

So the government should set sensible targets which control immigration rather than net migration and which set limits for aspects of migration that its policies can actually control.

Second, public opinion is also pragmatic, nuanced and selective and supports migration which reflects Britain’s interests and values. For example, the largest migration flow, of international students, is the most popular with the public.

There is a big question about the European Union. Membership constrains the choices that we can make about migration.

We can decide to be in the EU or to leave it. It is important that the public own this choice: that is why a referendum on EU membership makes sense, so that all of the issues about the economy, migration, identity and democracy are aired and the public get to decide whether we are in or out.

But if we stay in the EU, we are bound to play by the rules and that means accepting that those who come to work in Britain under those rules have a right to do so. It is important to have a debate about the reforms that can improve the EU too. But those opposed to the principle need to persuade their fellow citizens on the question of membership itself.

The migration debate most people want isn’t about whether we throw the doors open or shut the borders. It’s about how we manage the pressures so as to secure the benefits too.

As well as asking “how many”, we need to ask "who?" and "why?" and "on what terms?"  and we also need an immigration debate which pays considerably more attention to integration and contribution.

There are few benefits for Britain if we have immigration without integration.

Immigration without integration can be good for temporary migrants, who might earn some money to send or take home. But the benefits of migration are really the benefits of integration.

It is only when we have both  that we can unlock the benefits that people do see migration bringing to Britain: the doctors and nurses that our NHS depends on, new entrepreneurs who can create jobs and growth around Britain and how upholding our proud tradition of protecting those who need it can occasionally bring us another Olympic superstar.

We need to pay more attention to an approach to migration and integration that is fair to both existing citizens and to newcomers, helping them to join our society and make their fullest contribution to it.


Mass Immigration - Costly and Unsustainable

Migration between countries is a normal and desirable freedom. People move in search of work, for education, for family reasons, to retire or to seek protection. The economy can benefit, scarce skills can be provided.

The problems arise when migration flows become very large and unbalanced, especially from poor countries from which large inflows normally come. Then the population grows in a manner unexpected and unplanned; services, transport, housing, medical care become overstretched.

The recipient country, starting with its great cities, begins to change permanently its ethnic and religious character in ways that the local population does not like and on which it was not consulted. Economic benefits to the average person are relatively minor and may be negative. The benefits of diversity, celebration of which has become almost compulsory, rest on weak and partial evidence.

The claim that Britain has always been a country of immigration is unsustainable. For centuries this has been a country of emigration – 12 million Britons departed between 1815 and 1930. Net outflow of British citizens continued throughout that period and, with a few notable but transient exceptions, immigration to the UK was always modest.

That changed in the late 1950s with new inflows, then uncontrolled, from the New Commonwealth. Annual net immigration was about 40,000 in the early 1990s, even negative in 1993. But with a policy change after 1997, net migration has increased to about 200,000, mostly from outside Europe, adding three million to the UK population.

On the latest (2012) official projections, assuming future annual net migration of 165,000 (in 2013 it was 212,000), the UK's population would grow from 64 million today to 77 million by mid-century and then on well into the next century.

Such growth brings no benefits to the inhabitants of a small island - quite the reverse. Certainly the age-structure is made slightly more youthful by immigration, which improves the dependency ratio. But that cannot solve population ageing; maintaining the status quo requires infinitely increasing migration. In countries like Britain, management of ageing must depend on non-demographic measures.

Recipient countries can benefit greatly from professional and other skilled migration and also from talented students (although the countries from which they come, if poor, may not). No-one who works in a university can be unaware of that. Such exchanges, usually balanced, have been normal between the developed countries for a very long time.

Many migrants, however, do not enter specifically for employment. Dependents and spouses may be ill-equipped to work or barred by culture from working. Immigrants are welcome to many employers particularly in low-productivity enterprises if they will accept low wages and conditions unattractive to locals. The only unequivocal beneficiaries are the immigrants themselves (who may earn several times their wages at home), their employers, and the consumers of their output. The local poor risk being excluded from these benefits.

Overall, as studies by the House of Lords and others have concluded, there is little or no net benefit for the average inhabitant.  Arguments persist on the fiscal benefit of migration (services consumed by immigrants minus taxes paid by them). Most studies show it is small, some that it is negative. The better off may gain, the poor do not. Most evidence shows only a small loss of UK jobs to natives, but most created since 2001 have gone to immigrants and one million young people remain out of work, neither being trained nor educated.

Employers like willing immigrant workers but some clearly have become dependent on them. Easy access to immigration, especially of low-wage workers, distorts the economy and creates dependency. Low-wage, low-productivity, low skill enterprises flourish. That is not the future for a modern economy aspiring to be knowledge-based. In the long run such jobs cannot be sustained at acceptable living standards without welfare. Their proliferation risks increasing working poverty and income inequality. Abundant immigrant labour distracts attention from urgent domestic reform.


David sets out the challenges of increased levels of immigration. There is a long history of migrants coming to Britain and their descendants becoming British but immigration was considerably higher in the post-war period, with a further acceleration of migration over the last fifteen years.

The post-EU enlargement migration after 2004 was distinctive in three ways.

First, its scale made it the largest single wave of migration to Britain.

Second, it was also much more widely dispersed across Britain, with, for example, Polish migrants going to places like Boston, Lincolnshire or Merthyr Tydfil in Wales which had until recently seen limited migration.

A third factor is often underestimated: immigration today is as often temporary as it is permanent.

People disagree about both the economic and cultural impacts of immigration. Age and education are indeed important. Those who went to university tend to welcome both economic and cultural benefits, being much more confident about their place in an economy which places a higher premium on skills.

Those who left school at sixteen are sceptical about competition from ambitious incomers. Older Britons are more likely to find the pace of cultural change unsettling than younger Britons who, to some extent, grew up with it as the new norm.

The immigration debate we need would see those on all sides acknowledge the pressures and challenges of managing immigration properly as well as the value of doing so for integration and a fair economy.

The key question remains: what should be done? Politicians who propose a return to the lower migration levels of twenty or thirty years ago will struggle to keep that promise.

Debates about numbers matter – but we need to debate not only who we let in and why, but also the approaches to economics and integration that offer a fair deal to both existing citizens and migrants.


Sunder’s is a thoughtful argument.

Public scepticism about immigration became acute because elite opinion has consistently ignored growing concerns or denounced them as misguided or racist.

In a liberal democracy bound by international agreements it is always more difficult to limit than increase immigration, as we saw between 1997 and 2010. Moreover, after substantial inflow, easy access to labour and students creates dependency and vested interests.

‘Balanced migration’ or limiting net immigration to ‘tens of thousands’ is difficult. Immigration pressures are varied and unpredictable and the emigration of citizens cannot be controlled. But emigration of non-citizens can. Conditions of entry are often provisional and time-limited. They can be changed and overstayers removed.

There are other levers: recent focus on intention and fitness to study has limited student admissions; labour recruitment now aims at the most skilled; entry of dependents is more conditional and measures beyond the immigration process, such as welfare reform and the training of the domestic population, have been introduced.

Some inflows have fallen but overall results have been disappointing. Stumbling blocks include free access from the poorer EU countries, difficulties in changing entry conditions for spouses and dependents, thanks partly to interpretations of the Human Rights Act, limited capacity to detect and remove those who overstay or have entered illegally and failure to enforce employment law and limit access to welfare and the health service.

Some parties promise negotiations to limit entry from the EU with the option of leaving it and, possibly, the abolition of the Human Rights Act. But better enforcement of employment law just needs more resources. Without data, it’s impossible to know who and how many are entitled to be here but a national population register seems a remote prospect.

Nevertheless, the next election may allow immigration policy to be really tested.


Immigration is a deeply contested issue. Those of us who believe that migration has made important contributions to the country and society that Britain is today need to accept the challenges of addressing its economic and social pressure, to manage it fairly for everyone. And all sides of the debate need to contribute to constructive, real world approaches to how we make immigration work.

So it is helpful to identify the common ground as well as the disagreements about the policy choices and the numbers. If people are frustrated that their concerns are dismissed or not taken seriously, migrants who have come here will fear becoming the scapegoats for bigger problems in our economy and society.

Of course it isn't racist to worry about immigration - just as long as we talk about it without being racist.  We’ve come a long way on that in my lifetime. My father arrived in Britain just a fortnight after a famous speech argued that Commonwealth migrants should be encouraged to return home because their children could never be fully accepted as British. Today, most people are clear about the value of migrants and their children becoming proud new Britons.

That is a better model than the guest-worker approach some European countries have tried.

Most people will agree that we need sensible limits and that government should make promises it can keep to manage migration properly while securing the skills we need to plug the gaps in our NHS and care homes and welcoming the entrepreneurs and the fee-paying students who can create jobs in our economy.

That requires public confidence in a system which is effective and fair. The British public expect that. People fleeing persecution should be entitled to a fair decision which reflects our tradition of protecting those in need rather than seeing their files lost in the bureaucracy while their lives are put on in hold.

We need to be clear about what Britain expects of migrants who come here - and what we all need to do to make sure we have a strong and shared society rather than a divided and segregated one. That means that we need a common language and a clear sense of the responsibilities we all share as citizens.

Ultimately, there are few benefits for Britain if we have immigration without integration. That may be good for some migrants - if they have a short-term goal of saving money to send home or take back - but it’s integration which is the key to making sure that Britain benefits from migration too. That’s the fair deal we need. When migrants work hard, pay into the system, speak our language and uphold British values, they should be welcome in Britain, as equal members of our club, so that they and their children can contribute fully to our country.


I agree with some of Sunder’s points - especially about integration - but not others. Opening the UK’s borders to labour migrants from eastern European countries immediately upon their EU accession in 1994 was a policy blunder based on an absurd projection of a 13,000 annual inflow. There are now over a million in the UK and more births to Polish mothers than to any other immigrant group. No provision had been made for the consequences for housing, schools or other services.

Such migration is not usually temporary, nor is it becoming so despite endless assurances. Only migrants from rich countries are likely to return home. Immigrant populations from elsewhere, from Africa and Asia, are always the greater part of the inflow, they increase steadily and there is neither sign nor likelihood of any large-scale return.

Time to reprise some basic points: migration is normal and can benefit both individuals and populations, although the migrant is the only unquestionable beneficiary.

No-one advocates a stop to migration even if it were possible. But were that to happen it would be damaging but not terminal. In that strong sense, the UK does not ‘need’ migration. It has a population of 64 million, a robust birth-rate, a relatively favourable outlook for population ageing and considerable unused reserves of labour.

The overall economic consequence of immigration is contentious. Many claim it is positive although the advantage for the average UK citizen usually turns out to be small. Conventional economic calculations - the easy fiscal ones - do not consider the substantial additional but more difficult to measure costs such as security and burdens on the NHS from new diseases and higher birth-rates, nor those arising from race relations, integration and multicultural policies.

Recent rapid UK population growth has mostly been powered by immigration - and an even greater proportion will be in the next 25 years. According to official projections, which assume migration levels considerably lower than today’s, our population would grow to 77 million by mid-century - not far off two more Londons - then on to 90 million and more. The consequences for a small island do not need to be spelled out. Most important is the effect on society itself. The ancestry, identity and ethnic origins of the British population are being transformed. Already the ‘White British’ are in a minority in London; on recent trends that will be true of the whole country not long after mid-century.

Yes, moderating migration is difficult. To do so would require hard decisions about national priorities, entitlements in the UK, international agreements and memberships which have attracted and facilitated such a large part of the mostly unintended migration of recent decades. The issue ultimately is: who do we want to be?

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