5 Nov 2014

Are newspapers misleading you over immigration?

Depending on where you get your news, you might think immigrants have contributed £20bn to the UK economy – or cost it £120bn. Somebody, somewhere, must be lying. Right?

Immigration headlines

It is probably no surprise to you that British newspapers are often biased – but today’s UCL report on immigration has generated headlines so widely disparate it is hard to fathom they are about the same piece of research.

Channel 4 News takes a look at the various immigration headlines on offer.

Daily Mail

The UCL report uses two sets of figures – one covering 1995 to 2011 and the other covering 2001 to 2011.

The first set of data addresses the overall fiscal contribution of the entire migrant community, no matter when they arrived in the UK. The second set of data only includes new migrants – i.e. migrants who arrived in the UK from 2000 onwards.

The Daily Mail focuses on the first set of figures – covering the entire immigrant population between 1995 and 2011.

There’s a problem with this though: the report’s authors say the figures have been included “for completeness” but that they are “difficult to interpret” and “not informative”.

This is because the figures do not include the previous contribution a migrant may have made, and do not take into account migrants who may have come into the UK, contributed, and then left.

FactCheck: Confused about immigration? Read this

For example, the report says a hypothetical migrant who arrived in the UK in the 1950s could have contributed overall to the economy. However, by 1995 this migrant is likely to be too old to work, and therefore receiving more state hand-outs whilst contributing less.

And though the first set of data does show a £118m net cost attached to non-EU migrants in the 17-year period, “native” Britons cost the state £591m in the same period. The ratio of contributions (through things like income tax) to expenses (i.e. welfare payments) is approximately the same for “natives” and non-EU migrants – i.e. non-EU migrants are roughly the same burden on the state as “native” Britons.

The report says it focuses on the 2001 to 2011 figures – a “clean description” of migrant contributions from the moment they arrive in the UK. This data says non-EU migrants have made a positive fiscal contribution to the UK – totalling around £5bn.

Daily Telegraph

As with the Daily Mail, the Telegraph has used the first (less useful) set of figures for a swipe at the Labour Party.

Their justification is that Labour, elected to power in 1997, was in charge for much of the period when non-EU migrants cost the state £120bn.

However, as said above, the data the Telegraph has used applies to all migrants – stretching back to those who arrived in the 1950s.

Since 1950 a Conservative government has spent more time in power than a Labour one – at the very least we should say both governing parties should take responsibility for any failings in immigration policy that there have been.

Additionally, the Telegraph headline refers to Labour’s “immigration policy” costing £120bn without differentiating between EU and non-EU migrants. A small point, perhaps, but as EU migrants made a net contribution of £4bn between 1995 and 2011 the figure should be around £114bn.


Whilst the more right-leaning newspapers have focused on the first set of figures (1995 to 2011) and on non-EU migrants, the Guardian (and Independent) focused on the second set of figures and European migrants.

Whilst this brings them more into line with the conclusions of the report’s authors, it is still not telling the full story.

The report does show a net contribution of £20bn from EU migrants, as well as a net contribution of £5bn from non-EU migrants and a net cost of £616bn from native Britons for the 2001 to 2011 period.

However, these figures will not include, for example, the cost or contribution of migrants who arrived in 1999 and earlier.

Lies, damned lies and…

But part of the problem is the focus on numbers. There are factors that cannot be included in this report – for example the impact of illegal immigrants, more likely to work in the “black market” and less likely to contribute to society, for example.

The costs to the state from migrant children, such as education, is included – but the benefits of those children contributing back to the UK economy in later life is not included.

What the report does indicate though is trends. These include that the migrants who come to the UK are generally better educated than the average Briton, but that their salaries do not reflect this.

The migrants are also generally young – the average age of non-EU migrants is 26, and the trend is for them to remain in the UK for less time (the average stay has fallen from 24 years in 1995 to 12 years in 2011).

The report concludes that public perceptions on immigration are in “stark contrast” to the reality that immigrants “have made substantial net contributions” to the UK’s finances.

But why should you believe us? We could be being biased ourselves…

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