After I finished grumbling at an article on Nigel Farage this week, I got thinking about some of the less obvious implications of the policy he’s calling for.
First: the details. Farage is calling for new immigrants to the UK to be barred from receiving any kind of benefit for 5 years following their arrival in the country. He doesn’t believe that immigration is good for the economy (I don’t think you get to choose whether or not to believe a fact but never mind), but says that even if it were; some things are more important than money. Once UKIP had put down a marker of how far they would go, a number of Tories showed their true colours, with Boris Johnson suggesting that he’d support a 2 year bar. The increments were then marked out all the way to Labour saying they see 3 months as being a reasonable threshold, with others coming out against such a waiting period altogether.
To put the following discussion in context, I am not in favour of such a policy even if the following implications were not an issue. The fact that someone could contribute financially and socially just as much, or even more so, than someone born here, yet receive no support from the state to which they are contributing for such an extended time is simply wrong. Particularly if one, like Farage, wishes to appeal to what is ‘fair’.
A popular thought experiment used to evoke support for the anti-immigration bandwagon plays on the idea of a study group. Imagine that your class has a big history test at the end of term. You and four friends decide to split the syllabus and each take one fifth to distil in to notes, to then share with the others. You work conscientiously compiling a comprehensive set of revision notes for nine out of the ten weeks of term, when, in the last week, one of your classmates asks if they can use the notes too. Having not contributed it seems unfair that they should benefit from your hard work and so the argument goes that immigrants should not benefit from the hard work of British people by ‘turning up’ in the tenth week.
Believe it or not, Farage hasn’t been as hard line as he could have been. He has realised that being entirely anti-immigration is unworkable. He has taken something analogous to the above thought experiment and said “okay, if you devote yourself to the study group for long enough, you can reap the rewards”. However, unfortunately the study group analogy doesn’t really fit society as well as he would hope.
Life does not have an end of term deadline or test. A better analogy might be receiving a great set of revision notes because you sat, by chance, in the same seat as someone who had worked conscientiously before you. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so fair that you won’t share them with your classmate. In the same way, it does not seem fair that Brits, here through the luck of birth, exclude others from state support if they wish to come and join us. The amount you can contribute is neither finitely confined like a syllabus nor time dependent like a school term and, therefore, if someone wants to come and contribute to British society and our economy, they should receive the same level of support that we won born in to by luck. This is to say that if you want to appeal to fairness using the maxim of ‘you get what you give’, Farage’s proposed policy is not going to fit consistently with your reasoning.
This is why I primarily started to mumble antagonistically at my computer screen when I read about Farage’s proposals. However, it was then that the second wave of incredulity hit. I suddenly began to think about the highly skilled and valuable immigrants that we currently welcome to help drive progress and growth across a huge variety of sectors in this country. Particularly about the 28.4% of those who are female* and the disproportionate impact that the above proposals would have on them.
It is already a thoroughly impressive achievement to get recruited to work in a country other than the one you grew up in, but in practice, women often have it harder than their male peers. Men outnumber women in securing international work by four to one.
For the women who have managed to secure an opportunity abroad, having established their ‘highly skilled’ status and negotiated the smorgasbord of their other responsibilities, Farage’s proposed 5 year waiting period would provide yet another obstacle. No benefits for 5 years, doesn’t just mean no jobseeker’s allowance, it also means no child benefits, maternity benefits or any other benefit that parents might usually receive. In a world where women still hold the responsibility for the larger proportion of child care and the related duties, a 5 year halt to benefits for immigrants would dis-incentivise many talented women from moving to work in Britain. Consequently, this would lead, not only to a further contribution to global inequality between the sexes, but, to a substantial loss to British society and our economy. Furthermore, in a world where international experience can provide the propulsion to the top ranks of one’s chosen profession, this further impediment to women working abroad would stifle, once more, the drive to ensure more women reach the top jobs across global industries.
Immigration is an important issue to discuss. Particularly at a time when the Great British public believes that approximately one third of the population is now made up of first generation immigrants (it’s actually just 13%). However, proposing blunt instruments, like Farage’s policy, is not the way forward. I hate to say it, but Farage is right on one thing: some things are more important than money. In this case the evidence suggests that supporting immigration is both financially and morally sensible, but even if it did not, in the interests of fairness, we should support everyone who contributes to our society, particularly women for whom such support is all the more necessary. Ladies, you can join my study group any time.
*This statistic is from 2007, as this is the most recent one available. If any academic types are looking for something to work on, the research surrounding this topic is severely lacking. However, using the American statistics as a guide, it would seem that the percentage of highly skilled migrants who are female is still approximately 30%.