How are migration trends affecting UK population growth and how has the government responded?
Since 2008, successive UK governments have pledged to ‘get tough’ on migration. Immigration from outside the EU has recently been reduced, following the introduction of an Australian-style ‘point system’. However, the current economic climate in the UK and other parts of the EU (especially Spain, Greece and Italy) has impacted on British migration trends in complex ways. As a result, it is proving hard for the government to keep its promise to cut overall net migration. This case study article also examines how young migrants entering Britain have triggered the first real positive shift in the UK fertility rate for 40 years.
Are more migrants entering or leaving the UK?
What are the new rules for migrants entering the UK?
Baby Boom Britain: what’s the link between migration and fertility?
Model answer for AS studies of population change
Prime Minister David Cameron made a pre-election promise to bring UK population growth through migration down to ‘tens of thousands’. But new media reports show that the UK net migration figure - measured as the difference between numbers of incomers and leavers - is now at its highest level for several years! What factors have led to this?
Between 1995 and 2008, the total number of non-UK nationals living in the country more than doubled, from 1.9 million to 4.2 million. Some of these new arrivals were students and others were retirees. The number properly described as economic migrants rose from 862,000 to 2,283,000.
In the view of many politicians and citizens, further growth on the same scale needs to be discouraged, especially during the current economic downturn when jobs are in relatively short supply.
The political reaction has been to introduce tougher entry rules for non-European migrants. Since 2008, a new point-based system has been rolled-out (see next section). The government has attempted to cut net migration by restricting the number of skilled and non-skilled non-EU immigrants. Additionally, it has toughened its stance on some applications from young foreigners wanting to come and study in Britain.
During 2010, net migration into the UK actually rose by 21%, despite the new points system being put in place. The overall balance between emigration and immigration was +239,000, leading to the greatest overall growth in the size of the UK population for several years. The reason for this? According to the Office for National Statistics, immigration to the UK was 575,000 but, crucially, emigration fell to a six-year low of 336,000.
Several factors have contributed to this state of affairs, as follows:
There has been a significant fall in the numbers of British "sun seeker" migrants heading for Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy or France. This flow has slowed because of the decline in the value of the pound relative to the euro. Further, people considering emigrating to work or live in Spain or Greece are deterred by the thought of moving to a region with severe economic problems that include high unemployment and falling house prices.
For much the same reasons, there has been a rise in returning "ex-pats" from the Mediterranean. This is especially the case for people close to retirement age. Their return movement has boosted net migration further.
There is a net increase in migration from eastern Europe again. Although many young Poles and Estonians have left the UK since first arriving around 2004, many more young people, such as recent school-leavers, are still arriving from these countries (see below for further details). They are fully entitled to do so under EU rules.
There is some evidence that the government has already softened the rules for the new points-based system. This has followed complaints from the business community about their restricted ability to hire workers from outside the EU. Many TNCs based in Britain believe that the original cap on visas for skilled workers – set at 24,100 – is not enough; some company bosses believe this threatens the UK’s role as a global hub. The points system was softened in July 2011, when the government decided that "exceptional" individuals (people like academics and artists) should be encouraged to migrate to the UK, rather than being deterred from doing so (BBC News, 14 April 2011).
Foreigners with a student visa remain the largest group of migrants that enter the UK each year. The government is unlikely to force any radical changes here for financial reasons (universities continue to rely heavily on the high fees paid by foreign students). While there has been some attempt to tackle bogus educational applications, the impact on overall numbers has been relatively minor.
In summary, the key reason why the UK government finds it hard to "get tough" on migration is because fewer Brits are leaving. This is because of the weak pound and fewer opportunities overseas due to the global recession. This means that the net migration figure rises even if fewer immigrants arrive.
From a government perspective, this difficult situation is further compounded by a second factor that is beyond its direct political control, namely migration taking place within the European Union. Thirdly, it seems unwise to interfere too much with the universities’ recruitment of foreign students, given the important of the high fees they pay.
Reflecting on the current situation, the Financial Times (25 August 2011) noted that: "The figures will make grim reading for Theresa May, home secretary, who is working to fulfil the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands by the end of this parliament".
Net migration trends for eastern Europeans coming to the UK have varied wildly over recent few years:
Numbers arriving shot up in 2004 and again in 2007 following the accession to the EU of eastern European countries (Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and Czech Republic, later joined by Bulgaria and Romania). According to a study by the BBC’s new Global Migration Policy Institute, EU expansion resulted in 1.4m eastern Europeans relocating to the UK between 2004 and 2008.
However, the global credit crunch of 2008 led to the temporary halting of this movement. UK unemployment rose from 5% in 2007 to nearly 8% in 2009, reducing job availability, especially in the construction and catering industries. The value of the Polish zloty strengthened against the pound, making work in Britain less rewarding for migrants (because worker remittances lost some of their value). In 2009, net migration of eastern Europeans into the UK was just +5,000, due to so many leaving.
In 2010, the balance shifted upwards again, rising to +39,000. Experts believe that the key factors that created the initial pull for A8 workers to the UK are still partly in place: there is a demand for their labour and UK wages remain much higher overall than in Poland or other eastern European nations. But perhaps most importantly of all, there are now well-established communities and support networks in the UK that are valued by young eastern European migrants (Financial Times, 25 August 2011).
Current evidence suggests that positive net migration from eastern Europe could persist well in the future. However, there are also several good reasons why it might not continue on an upward trend:
Young, well-educated Poles often find themselves doing low-skilled and socially demeaning work in Britain, for which they are quite clearly overqualified. "How long can someone with a Master’s degree in Law or Engineering work as a hotel chambermaid or barman?" one young Pole asked a reporter for BBC News (08 September 2009). Many are fed up with being on the wrong side of the "skills gap" in the UK.
Movement between eastern European countries and Britain is often temporary in any case. Some people are constantly on the move, sometimes seasonally. This makes the long-term trend hard to guess.
Germany opened its doors fully to eastern European workers in April 2011 (having taken advantage of a transition rule to limit movement up until then). It is Europe’s leading economy and a highly attractive destination for young migrants.
Since 2008, the British government has toughened its stance on immigration. This follows a decade of high numbers of people entering the UK. As a result of the recent policy changes, non-European workers hoping to migrate to Britain now face greater intervening obstacles than in the past.
To come and live in the UK as a guest worker, non-EU migrants hoping to qualify for a working visa face tougher new rules. The government began phasing in a 5-tier point system at the end of 2008 (see table below). Some minor changes were made by the new government in 2010.
Tier 1 and Tier 2 rules for non-European workers
Under Tier 1 rules, highly skilled "exceptional" migrants are awarded points for attributes including age, qualifications and previous or prospective earnings. Tier 1 applicants must score at least 75 points for their "primary attributes". Possible pathways that would lead to a Visa being granted include:
possessing the funds needed to invest in a new or existing business (£200,000 or £1,000,000 respectively).
possessing "exceptional talent" (or being recognised as an exceptionally talented leader) in the fields of science, humanities, engineering or the arts (BBC News, 14 April 2011). Only a maximum of 1,000 "persons of exceptional talent" will be admitted annually.
Tier 2 rules govern the number of skilled migrants entering graduate occupations with a job offer and sponsorship. Under Tier 2 rules, there is a minimum salary of £40,000 for firms using intra-company transfers (ICTs). However, these limits do not apply to a category of workers who come to the UK in an "intra-company transfer" with their TNC employer. "In other words, there will be other people coming in," reported BBC News (14 April 2011).
The government’s immigration cap for Tier 1 and Tier 2 workers was set at 21,700 for 2011.
In a related move aimed at restricting illegal immigration, UK border controls have recently been strengthened through greater use of technology to monitor the movement of people on air and sea routes.
Why are the Tier 1 and Tier 2 rules controversial?
Migration is an issue that people often feel passionately about. David Cameron’s government have been keen to appear "tough" on immigration. In a recent speech, the Prime Minister said: " First we need to be clear about what the problem is. I know this is an issue that people feel really passionate about. And I know the debate around immigration is not always a healthy one.
It often swings between extremes, between those who argue strongly that migration is an unalloyed good, vital for our economic success and those who say it completely undermines our economy because immigrants take all our jobs.
He continued: "I have a very clear view about this. I have never shied away from talking about immigration. I called for reform and clear limits in Opposition. And I'm determined to deliver in government." (New Statesman, 10 October 2011)
However, other people believe that that the introduction of the new cap for skilled workers and students is economically damaging for the UK. Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, has argued that: "These restrictions are bad for growth. The Treasury's analysis implies that the cap on skilled migrants will knock between £3 billion and £4 billion off the UK's GDP by the end of this parliament, while the Home Office's impact assessment of the curbs on students suggests that they will cost us between £1.5 billion and £3.5 billion over the course of the parliament. In both cases, there will be knock-on effects to tax revenues.
He added: "The damaging impact of these policies is hardly surprising. Skilled migrants, by definition, are significantly better qualified and more productive, on average, than natives, so they boost not just overall GDP but also GDP per capita, giving additional benefits to the rest of the economy. And the UK needs to increase exports in sectors where we have a natural comparative advantage - such as higher education - instead of deliberately reducing them" (New Statesman, 17 October 2011).
Until recently, many population experts believed that the UK’s fertility rate was in a state of permanent decline. However, the latest official figures show that the fertility rate rose recently to its highest level since 1973. What’s going on?
The reasons usually cited for a fall in the fertility rate over time in high-income nation such as the UK include:
Women with careers starting a family later, or not at all.
Increased availability of contraception (and less strict religious teaching, belief and obedience).
Very low infant mortality (so parents no longer believe they need "lots of tickets in life’s lottery").
Expensive modern consumerist lifestyles and rising costs of child-care.
It is sometimes suggested that the important Demographic Transition Model (DTM) – which describes population changes over time – needs to be amended to show a new fifth stage illustrating a permanent fall in population size on account of a perpetual decline in the number of births
Fertility has certainly been in decline in the UK since the 1970s, falling well below its replacement level (the rate needed to maintain population size over time; for a developed country like the UK it is an average of 2.1 babies born per woman). As a result, Office of National Statistics data for 2008-09 gave a startling surprise. They showed an unexpected and significant fertility rise. In a front-page article called "Baby Boom Britain", the Daily Telegraph (28 August 2009) reported that:
The UK fertility rate rose to 1.96 in 2009, its highest value since 1973 (when rising oil prices and economic recession led to a marked fall).
Much of the new increase can be attributed to foreign-born women living in the UK. Their fertility rate is relatively high at 2.5 children per mother.
However, the fertility rate amongst UK-born women increased independently by 10% between 2005 and 2009, taking it to 1.84 children. The evidence suggests some reversal of the recent tendency amongst professional women to postpone childbirth until much later in life.
33,000 extra babies were born in 2009 compared with 2007.
There were 220,000 more births than deaths in 2008.
Natural increase - the difference between births and deaths - has therefore become as important as immigration in driving UK population growth.
A combination of natural increase and positive net migration means that the UK population is now growing in size at a rate of 0.7% every year. This is more than double the rate in the 1990s and three times the level of the 1980s.
Already, three million more people live in Britain compared with 2001! UK population size reached an all-time high of 62.3 million in 2011, following the biggest annual increase seen since 1962 (BBC News, 30 June 2011).
However, this growing population is also an ageing population, despite plenty of new babies being born. Continuing improvements in health mean that the number of people aged 85 and over has reached a record 1.3 million. This is the equivalent of one in every 50 people. By 2066, there are predicted to be over half a million people aged 100 or over alive in the UK (Guardian, 23 May 2011).
It is important to note that although the fertility rate has risen, it is still below the replacement level; without positive net migration, UK population numbers would begin to fall. Two further factors are also worth considering when trying to anticipate future population growth, fertility and ageing trends:
There is no guarantee that young Polish families will stay in the UK beyond the short-to-medium term. Perhaps when their children reach school age, some parents will want them to receive education in their homeland? It is not uncommon for British citizens living abroad with young children to return home once their children need to enter secondary school. Perhaps some eastern Europeans parents will act in a similar way as their children get older.
Rising living costs, soaring university fees, growing unemployment and general economic insecurity may soon act to counter the recent rise in fertility. During the economic crisis of the mid-1970s, there was a marked downturn in the numbers of babies being born: history may well repeat itself.
Suggest why the demographic transition model is of limited use when predicting future population changes for high-income nations. (6 marks)
"The DTM shows us that births and deaths fall over time. In the UK, we have low births and deaths due to modern medicine and the NHS. But in the future a sudden war or disease could make more people die. Afterwards there would be more births as people recovered and got back to normal. This happened after WWII when soldiers returned after fighting for years. So it’s impossible to know what will happen in the future which is why the model doesn’t work."
"With globalisation, countries such as the UK find more and more economic migrants wanting to come here. EU rules also allow European people to move freely and work in the UK. Since the A8 nations joined in 2004, one million Poles have come here and this is a big influence on population growth that is not factored into the model (the DTM only considers what has happened to births and deaths in the past). There are other complications too – the recession means many migrants are now leaving the UK as there is less work, so this is another trend to consider. Also, the migrants who are staying are often young and having children early so this pushes up the birth rate. All of this is much more complex that what the DTM can predict."
Rachael’s answer is not great. She completely omits key ideas – such as the way migration impacts on population change (it’s not just about fertility and mortality). Her suggestions – which draw on knowledge of what happened in the UK after the World Wars – do not seem to be very realistic ones for today (although a flu pandemic could perhaps occur). She scored 2 marks. But Nathan was very precise with his answer, showing excellent knowledge of how factors linked with globalisation and the growth of the EU greatly complicate matters when making population predictions (both migration and fertility trends are considered). The complexity of his answer definitely merits a full six marks.
BBC News, 14 April 2011 "UK immigration cap"
Financial Times, 25 August 2011 "Rise in net migration tests Tory vow"
BBC News, 08 September 2009 "Turnstiles not floodgates for Polish workers"
New Statesman, 10 October 2011 "David Cameron speech on migration"
New Statesman, 17 October 2011 "Here’s your Plan B, Mr Osborne"
Daily Telegraph, 28 August 2009 "New baby boom for Britain"
BBC News, 30 June 2011 "UK population sees biggest increase in half a century"
Guardian, 23 May 2011 "How will we care for the centenarians of the future?
Financial Times, 27 May 2011 "Migrant numbers fuel debate on reform"
Written by Dr Simon Oakes a Chief Examiner for the International Baccalaureate diploma course in geography. He is also a senior examiner for A-level geography and GCSE citizenship.
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