'Denial”, the obstinate refusal to recognise an obvious truth, is a very common psychological response to unwelcome facts. In the long term, denial almost always leads to disaster. But in the short term, it can be an effective way of burying bad news, which is why it’s so common in politics.
It has, for instance, been the basic reaction to the consequences of immigration. Labour ministers became adept at claiming that high levels of immigration – a policy which they introduced – would make all of us more prosperous, as we benefited from the “dynamism and creativity”, not to mention the low wages, of the new arrivals.
Economists showed that actually, immigration has almost no impact on our collective prosperity. Its overall economic effects, whether positive or negative, are very small. But did that stop Labour ministers insisting on the enormous economic benefits of immigration? It did not. Now the Liberal members of the Coalition have taken over where their Labour predecessors left off. Vince Cable has claimed that the Conservatives’ plan for a cap on the number of immigrants into Britain is “economic madness”.
If immigration doesn’t have any very significant consequences for per capita GDP, it does have some very obvious social effects, not all of which are benign. One of them was highlighted in a report published last week by Migration Watch. It calculates that, over the next decade, more than a million additional school places will be needed for the children of immigrants and that the cost of providing them will be at least £100 billion. (For comparison, Britain’s fiscal deficit last year was £155 billion.)
That is a staggering amount - indeed it is so large as to be almost unbelievable. The first question to ask is: how accurate are Migration Watch’s numbers? It bases them on figures from the Office of National Statistics. The much higher birth rate of immigrant families explains the rapid increase in the number of children needing schooling: whereas births to women born in the UK have fallen by more than 3 per cent over the decade, births to parents born outside the UK have more than doubled. That’s why the total number of births in Britain hasn’t fallen, but risen by 11 per cent.
The figures on the cost of the extra school places come from the Department for Education. They are an underestimate, since they don’t include the considerable additional cost of teaching English to the children of immigrants. Compared to £100 billion, the £5 billion “pupil premium” the Coalition will devote to early years education for disadvantaged children is tiny. Even so, a substantial proportion of that £5 billion ought to go to the children of immigrants, because many of them will be among the most disadvantaged.
So the second question is: is the Government actually doing anything to ensure that the additional school places are provided? Ed Balls, Labour’s education secretary, was prepared to give London’s local authorities only about a quarter of what they said they needed just to provide the extra primary school places. Even if the Coalition decides to “ring fence” the budget for schools, the need to cut the deficit means ministers won’t be able to increase Mr Balls’s patently inadequate sum. It leaves them with only one response to the problem: denying that it exists.
Denial, of course, is not a solution. Children of immigrants can become highly productive members of society - but only if they learn to speak English, and receive an adequate education which enables them to adapt to British ways and to get jobs. If the education system breaks down because it cannot accommodate them, their chances of integrating collapse at the first hurdle, with potentially dire consequences. What is being done to head off that outcome? In practical terms, almost nothing - and that’s very bad news indeed.