Tuesday briefing: Why Suella Braverman thinks immigration is harming Britain – and what the facts say

Tuesday briefing: Why Suella Braverman thinks immigration is harming Britain – and what the facts say

Good morning. To absolutely no one’s surprise, Suella Braverman’s heavily trailed speech to the National Conservatism conference yesterday was an exercise in playing to her base.

Her fellow Conservatives weren’t too happy about her attempts to burnish her future leadership ambitions: one accused her of thinking “being home secretary was some side hustle”, and another said most MPs were “rolling their eyes”. Her speech featured red meat lines for the right about trans people, why “white people do not exist in a special state of sin”, “the ethnicity of grooming gang perpetrators”, and experts. But most concrete was what she had to say about immigration – and why she thinks that the UK is in danger of “forgetting how to do things for ourselves”.

Braverman’s speech comes ahead of new annual immigration figures, expected to be a significant increase on last year’s, which were already a record. But scratch the surface of her diagnosis and it becomes clear that her demand to reduce numbers she called “unsustainable”, and a danger to the UK’s “national character”, is likely to come up against significant opposition as unworkable – even from within the cabinet itself.

Today’s newsletter, with Rob McNeil, the deputy director of Oxford university’s Migration Observatory, is about the reality underlying Braverman’s comments – and why it’s not as simple as she suggests. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Ukraine | Volodymyr Zelenskiy met with Rishi Sunak on an unannounced visit to the UK, hinting that he was hopeful of “very important” news on the provision of F-16 jets with the help of the British government. Britain meanwhile promised to supply “hundreds of attack drones” capable of operating at a range of 200km, but would not provide more details on the weapons.

  2. Carbon offsetting | Adverts that claim products are carbon neutral using offsets are to be banned unless companies can prove they really work, the Guardian can reveal. The Advertising Standards Authority will begin stricter enforcement around terms such as “carbon neutral” and “net zero” after a six-month review.

  3. New Zealand | At least six people are dead and 11 others missing after a “worst nightmare” fire at a 92-room hostel in New Zealand. The Loafers Lodge hostel in Newtown, in Wellington’s south, caught alight just after midnight on Tuesday, prompting an evacuation.

  4. Housing | Figures show that the average monthly rent outside London has passed £1,000 for the first time. Renters in the UK are typically paying 25% more than they were at the start of the Covid pandemic. The estate agent Hamptons, which issued the data, warned that the rate of rent rises was “unlikely to slow considerably due to the number of landlords looking to pass on their rising costs”.

  5. Technology | The EU has approved Microsoft’s $69bn acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the company behind Call of Duty, reviving its hopes of a deal and putting Brussels at odds with its UK counterpart. The Competition and Markets Authority in the UK and the Federal Trade Commission in the US have both come out against the takeover.

John Whittingdale, Theresa Villiers, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel pose for a photograph at the launch of the Vote Leave campaign. Photograph: Reuters

The Vote Leave campaign promised that Brexit would bring immigration under control – but while that has since been explained as the ability to flex up and down as required, it is likely that some voters understood it to mean that the numbers would drop.

In 2019, the Conservative manifesto promised that “overall numbers will come down”. But the Johnson government relaxed restrictions on non-EU migration over the next three years. Net migration – the number coming in minus the number going out – was at 504,000 last year, the highest on record. This year, it has been reported that the Home Office thinks the total could rise to one million, and the Telegraph reports this morning that an internal document last year suggested another 1.1m in 2024.

While the public has become more comfortable with immigration since Brexit – with 46% positive about the impact of immigration, 17% unsure, and 29% taking a negative view in an Ipsos poll last year – there is a swathe of voters on the right of the Conservative party who are worried about it. Those are the people Braverman was attempting to appeal to with her speech yesterday.

Why are net migration figures going up?

In part because there aren’t enough skilled British workers available to do the jobs that businesses need. In 2022, more than half of all work visas granted were for skilled workers.

But that is only one aspect of the story. The increase in visas granted is also an artefact of the end of free movement, which means workers who could previously have come without any restriction now require a visa. There has meanwhile been a sharp increase in overseas students and their dependents. And the arrival of 174,000 Ukrainians after Russia’s invasion also played a part. (That figure, like the numbers coming from Hong Kong, is likely to drop considerably this year.)

There are still shortages in many industries that the government tries to help businesses fill by allowing workers to come in from overseas. “There’s no problem at all with trying to find and train British workers to do things in principle,” said Rob McNeil. “The issue is with the attractiveness of roles. We just don’t have a load of people who are available to do these things.”

Why is there such a shortage of British workers?

The UK is an outlier on the lasting effects of the coronavirus crisis: in a report published in December, the House of Lords’ economic affairs committee found that an additional 565,000 people were economically inactive compared with before the pandemic – whereas in most countries, a spike in inactivity has since been reversed. (The charts at the top of this page show how unusual the UK is.) Job vacancies have risen, while unemployment reached its lowest level since 1974.

The main factors: a growth in early retirement; the fall in EU workers who previously filled those vacancies; increasing sickness, partly because of lengthening NHS waiting lists; and the fact that the British population is ageing, which is responsible for about a third of the increase in inactivity.

While Braverman’s speech implies that the problem is an inadequately trained British workforce, the evidence does not support that view. If that was the case, you would expect unemployment rates to be higher: rather than “forgetting how to do things for ourselves”, the problem is that we don’t have enough people available to do them.

“We’re not in the situation of high unemployment that we had in the late 80s, for example,” McNeil said. “The supply and demand component is important – whether you have other options has a fairly straightforward bearing on your availability.”

Is it true that the jobs Braverman cites can be done by ‘low-skilled’ workers?

The Sevington Inland Border Facility near Ashford which was built to handle all the border checks needed for the post Brexit arrangements.
The Sevington Inland Border Facility near Ashford which was built to handle all the border checks needed for the post Brexit arrangements. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/Antonio Olmos

Braverman said that “high-skilled workers support economic growth”, but that “there is no reason why we can’t train up enough HGV drivers, butchers, or fruit pickers” and suggested that the British economy should be “less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour”. HGV drivers are not currently on the lists of occupations eligible for a skilled worker visa, but butchers are; fruit pickers are on a separate seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme.

The framing of “skilled” work can become emotive, since it suggests that roles without that designation – like those working in care, a job where the British system relies on overseas workers with considerable “soft” skills but not intensive training – are without value.

“It’s important not to confuse the technical description with that perception, or to denigrate jobs that require compassion,” McNeil said. “The skills required to work in a care home are significant. But it’s a technical designation to do with the level of training or education required.”

What impact does migration have on the British economy?

Despite Braverman’s argument that her own department’s policy is a failure, businesses in some sectors rely on it to fill vacancies. Critics suggest that the reason for the lack of a transition to a higher-skilled economy is that since Brexit, UK business investment has shrunk sharply against the previous trend.

This Migration Observatory briefing explains that while the argument is sometimes made that bringing people in from abroad simply reduces the number of jobs available for British workers, there is good evidence to suggest that in some cases, migrants may actually create new jobs.

A review of studies conducted by the Migration Advisory Committee found that “immigration had little or no impact on average employment or unemployment of existing workers” and “had little impact on average wages”. Students tend to have a broadly positive impact on the economy since they pay to live and work in the UK, McNeil said. (A new study found that international students boosted the UK economy by £42bn in 2021/22.) “But dependents, if they’re children or very old people, will tend to be more expensive. And so are asylum seekers, because they’re precluded from the labour market.”

There is also evidence to suggest that over time, the arrival of working age migrants reduces pressure on the public finances because they are more likely to pay tax. And the Office for Budget Responsibility said in March that “a larger population, due to increased net migration, adds 0.5% to potential output in 2027”.

Since it also increases the number of people sharing in that growth, it may not have much of an impact on people’s standard of living, this piece by the former chair of the Migration Advisory Committee Alan Manning argues. “The overall impact is generally smaller than people tend to expect – usually less than plus or minus one per cent,” McNeil said. “So it’s not fundamental either way to the success of the British economy. But it can have a significant impact in particular sectors.”

So does Braverman’s speech mean the government will change policy?

Nobody can know the future trend in net migration for sure, but McNeil suggests that “the position at the moment is not the new normal – it’s an extraordinary situation as a result of the Ukraine and Hong Kong schemes, and the liberalisation on student visas and allowing more dependents”.

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While Braverman’s speech certainly sounded like it went beyond existing policy, Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson sought to play down that idea yesterday: “We have said before we want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on overseas labour as part of building a high-wage and high-skilled economy and we’re supporting those industries to do that.”

That doesn’t sound like a concrete policy change. McNeil notes that he is not in the business of predictions. But he does say: “There is a fairly long track record of what you would describe as symbolic policymaking in immigration, over many years and many administrations. And there will be a lot of pressure from businesses and lobby groups not to make decisions that will hamper them.”

What else we’ve been reading

An illustration by Elia Barbieri.
An illustration by Elia Barbieri. Illustration: Elia Barbieri/The Guardian
  • In the Guardian’s Big Idea series this week Chris van Tulleken argues that we need to reevaluate how we define and understand junk food, writing that “ultra-processed foods” are a central part of why more and more people are getting sick. Nimo

  • Samanth Subramanian’s long read about the scourge of Japanese knotweed, and the obsessive experts who have devoted their lives to defeating it, is just an absolute joy. One of them has “developed a curious intimacy with his quarry” to the extent that he once made it into a crumble. (“Not very nice,” incidentally.) Archie

  • Alaina Demopoulos looks at a curious trend unfolding in the US: more and more young Americans are adopting fake British accents to deflect in awkward social interactions or in day-to-day life. Nimo

  • After the presidential election went to a run-off in Turkey, Constanze Letsch has a pessimistic but compelling view of what’s likely to happen next. “Erdoğan now has the advantage for the probable runoff elections on 28 May,” she says. “Disappointment and disillusionment on the opposition side may eat into the second Kılıçdaroğlu vote.” Archie

  • If you are not sick of the steady stream of Succession content, then I would highly recommend this article in the Atlantic (£) by Tom Nichols on what it was like to be a guest actor on the show, after he played a shouty rightwing Republican political analyst. Nimo


Curtis Jones celebrates scoring Liverpool’s second goal against Leicester.
Curtis Jones celebrates scoring Liverpool’s second goal against Leicester. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters

Premier league | Two goals from Curtis Jones (above) and a stunning Trent Alexander-Arnold free kick took Liverpool to a 3-0 victory against struggling Leicester, who remain in the relegation zone with two games to play.

Tennis | Second seed Carlos Alcaraz (above) suffered his earliest exit in a tournament since October after 23-year-old Hungarian qualifier Fabian Marozsan pulled off a stunning 6-3, 7-6(4) win in the third round of the Italian Open. Marozsan, ranked No 135, is the lowest ranked player to defeat Alcaraz since July 2021.

Athletes’ welfare | The chair of British Gymnastics has called on the government to establish an independent welfare body to protect athletes across all sports – and to ensure governing bodies no longer face significant costs dealing with safeguarding cases. Mike Darcey told the Guardian that his governing body is struggling to deal with the 1,326 concerns raised with its welfare and safe sport team since July 2020.

The front pages

Guardian front page, Tuesday 16 May 2023

“Tory MPs tell Braverman: quit the PM pitch and stick to the day job” – that’s the lead this morning on our Guardian front page, where Rishi Sunak and Volodymyr Zelenskiy are shown having a hug. Same picture on the front of the Daily Telegraph, where the top story is “Ministers warned of sharp rise in immigration by election”. That picture again on the Times’ front – the splash is “Fifth of all taxpayers will now be in 40p band”, which you can read about here. The i’s headline to accompany the Rishi–Volodymyr pic is “UK backs Ukraine to join Nato”.

“I loved my wife … she begged me to kill her” – the Daily Mirror covers this story, calling it the “tragic OAP trial”. “Gove’s blast at Starmer bid to ‘rig’ elections” – the Daily Mail on Keir Starmer thinking about giving foreign nationals the vote. “Suella: white people should not feel guilty” says the Daily Express. The Metro mashes up themes from Braverman’s spech – immigration, and Britons being up to picking their own fruit – with “Suella’s picking timebomb”. The Financial Times leads with “Erdoğan on course to retain power as Turkey election heads for run-off”.

Today in Focus

A person walks past billboards of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul
Photograph: Emrah Gürel/AP

Erdoğan survives, but will Turkish democracy?

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, has moulded the country in his image during his two decades in power. Now he faces a run-off election to stay in power

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings on Zelenskiy’s visit to Chequers
Illustration: Ben Jennings/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Gorgon from the series Material Speculation: ISIS by Morehshin Allahyari.
Gorgon from the series Material Speculation: ISIS by Morehshin Allahyari. Photograph: © Morehshin Allahyari

Many artists and creatives have pointed to the limitations of artificial intelligence in creating interesting, impressive and, perhaps most importantly, original art. But what happens when artists use AI to push the boundaries of their own work? One museum is asking that question in an exhibition titled, /imagine: A Journey Into the New Virtual.

The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK) is showcasing artists who have used AI to uncover the potential of the virtual world or have used it to sound alarm bells about the direction society is heading.

One such artist is Morehshin Allahyari who presents a series of Assyrian artefacts that were destroyed by Islamic State, which she has digitally reconstructed from photographs and 3D-printed in translucent plastic. Allahyari asks whether big tech companies who profit from scans of historical objects and sites, without considering who that data should belong to, are guilty of a new form of digital colonialism.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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