Recent vote on a proposed referendum about the UK relationship with the European Union (EU) sparked a five hour debate among MPs. Although the movement of European nationals to the UK was not a key focus of yesterday’s discussion, some comments picked up familiar threads on this issue which we can expect to resurface as debate about the UK’s position in the EU intensify over coming months.
The key issue raised was the impact of EU migrant workers on local labour markets in the UK, expressed by Conservative MP Phillip Hollobone as one consequence of “the EU … getting its hands on more and more aspects of the British way of life”. Hollobone remarked that
“Nine out of every 10 jobs in this country go to foreign migrants, most of whom come from the European Union. These issues are not of concern only to right-wing people; they are of concern to every person in this land.”
This issue was later picked up by Ian Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow South West, who asked
“In my constituency, how can we ensure that local people get local jobs without the EU telling us that they must be advertised Europe-wide?”
The impact of migrant workers, including EU nationals, on local labour markets has been a hot political topic over recent months, with Iain Duncan Smith controversially arguing back in July that employers should avoid recruiting from overseas if they could recruit from local labour markets. This approach was criticised by employers and analysts as potentially both discriminatory and unworkable – and statistics used to sustain Duncan Smith’s proposal, demonstrating that 90% new jobs are taken by migrants as opposed to Brits, were also criticised as potentially misleading.
The temperature is likely to rise further on debate about the UK’s position within Europe over coming months, including about the impact of EU workers here. But we should view this as an opportunity to revisit the benefits brought by EU migration to the UK. With UK unemployment standing currently at just over 8%, it would be serious if EU migration were directly demonstrated to have seriously contributed to numbers of people out of work. But, as remarked by commentators on all sides of the argument, it is far more likely that EU migrant workers have generated growth and jobs in an economy in sore need of a boost.
Available evidence indicates that, by and large, the recent influxes of people from across the EU to the UK have brought marked benefits to regional and national economies up and down the country. A8 migration is estimated by the National Institute on Social and Economic Research to have contributed up to 0.5% gain in UK output since 2004. Research by Christian Dustmann at University College London, released in 2009, analysed available data to conclude that A8 migrants who have arrived in the UK since 2004 have made a positive net fiscal contribution in the UK, are 60% less likely than Brits to claim state benefits or tax credits, and are 58% less likely to live in social housing.
All this is not to say that EU freedom of movement has not placed new pressures on some local communities. There is plenty of scope for debate about how movements of people from across the European Union are anticipated and responded to by local authorities, and the role for business in ensuring that EU workers are given fair wages and working conditions alongside British workers. But in the coming months the real challenge will be to ensure that debate about EU freedom of movement is properly framed in terms of the broad benefits that it has brought to the UK.