Melanie McDonagh

There is a lot more to immigration than simply totting up the net migration figures

There is a lot more to immigration than simply totting up the net migration figures
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The good news is that most people in Britain think that people in their local area mix pretty well  regardless of differences in race, religion and the rest of it. According to the latest Citizenship Survey from the Department for Communities and Local Government for April-September last year, about 85 percent of people think that their neighbourhood is cohesive, community-speak for the absence of overt ethnic and religious tension.

But when it comes to attitudes to immigration a slightly different view emerges. About 78 percent of Brits would like to see immigration reduced; well over half, or 54 percent, want to see it reduced a lot. That's roughly the same level for the four years that this exercise in Cohesion Research has been underway.

And it's especially interesting given the nature of the people interviewed. The core sample group is a representative 10,000 people from England and Wales. But there's also an ethnic minority boost sample of 5,000 and a Muslim boost sample of 1,200 "to ensure the views of these groups are robustly represented". And presumably, there's an overlap between ethnic minorities and Muslims. That means, though, that the survey gives disproportionate weight to the views of minorities and Muslims as opposed to the rest of the population.

I mean the minority boost sample is half the size of the core group surveyed; the Muslim sample is almost an eighth of the size of the core group. My own instinct is that the 2001 census understated the number of Muslims and ethnic minorities but nothing like to that extent.

Even so, what's patent is a significant disquiet about the level of immigration, which suggests the government is on the right lines in wanting to reduce it significantly, to tens of thousands a year net, rather than hundreds of thousands as it was under the last government.

My own view is that this is a debate skewed by its terms of reference: net migration. In other words the figure we all talk about is the number of people coming in, less the number of people going out. So, if you have a million people from overseas arriving and a million Brits leaving, why, your net migration figure is zero: no problem.

Except that's not quite how it works in practice, is it? If a million Brits leave and a million people arrive, it would difference to the makeup of your neighbourhood. If the newcomers are, say, Somalis, which happens to be a group that features fairly prominently in my part of London, the differences are profound: many of the women are veiled, almost all are Muslim, the family sizes are larger, and the impact of the newcomers on local schools, for instance, is far greater than the equivalent number of Brits: they have particular educational needs when it comes to language. They'll also place greater demands on assisted housing.

The arrival of equivalent number of Australians, also non-EU immigrants in terms of the figures, would be very different: they'd be invisible in most practical ways, the drinking community apart. But Australians don't really loom large in the statistics. Neither do US merchant bankers and Indian IT specialists, the people that Vince Cable, Business Secretary, wants to protect from a migration cap.

On a national scale, this matters. Under the last government, between roughly 1997 and 2009, about 3.2 million people came to Britain (OK, less the number of foreigners leaving)  and about a million people from here left. The net migration figure of 2.2 million is, however, far less significant than the gross figure of the three million people who arrived here. The waiting list for social housing rose significantly during precisely this period, by 70 percent, from about a million in 1997-2001 to around 1.76 million in 2009. Some of that rise can be put down to people being priced out of a rising housing market but an awful lot of it can be attributed to immigration. And according to the Office for National Statistics, immigration is the reason behind 36 percent of the projected population increase to 70 million in the next 20 years.

Granted some of the new arrivals were people from other EU states, who can settle here at will. In the period we're talking about, under Labour, about 300,000 people came here from the original West European member states and another 300,000 from the new East European members, notably Poland - but that figure is an underestimate. About half a million National Insurance numbers were given out to East Europeans in this period. But even 800,000 is patently a minority of 3.2 million people. And East Europeans are notably mobile: they go home when the jobs dry up, as they're now doing in Ireland.

What we should be doing, then, if we're to have a more rational debate on immigration is to talk about gross immigration figures as well as the net figures. Gross figures do justice to the real impact of immigration, not just the national footfall. And if the government is really to advance community cohesion, it should be gross immigration it aims to curb.