Last week, I spoke alongside Nigel Farage in a debate about immigration organised by the Evening Standard. It was good fun, as you’d expect, with David Lammy, Tessa Jowell and Simon Walker of the IoD on the other side, and David Goodhart alongside me and Mr Farage. You’d be startled, mind you, at the way Nigel Farage gets mobbed by an audience, and in a good way. I did get the chance to get to talk briefly to him myself and ask the question I’d wanted to put to him for ages: why it is that he keeps on about EU migration, when it’s non-EU migration that’s the greater problem.

He was unfazed, of course, and said, look, when we meet again in the future to talk about all this, it’ll be EU immigration that’ll be the problem. Well, that’s as may be. He’s returned to the fray today in a piece in the Evening Standard in which he declares that ‘most of our school leavers are desperate to work but they have been blown out of the water by an endless stream of Eastern European migrants who are older, often better qualified, and ready to share bedrooms in shifts while they are getting established.’

And that’s what you get from Ukip…the invariable linkage of immigration and the EU; their answer to the question is that Britain must regain control of its borders. Look, I do realise that freedom of movement within the EU is a problem, though nothing like what it’d be if the main parties had their way and Turkey joins, because it is a virtually unlimited pool of labour. Nonetheless, in terms of numbers and the capacity to integrate, it is immigration from outside the EU which poses the real problem. Of the 532,000 people who came to Britain in the year to last September, 244,000 of them were non-EU citizens. That’s less than 269,000 the year before but still nearly half, and it was about half the previous year’s total too. And of the 3.8 million people – net, not gross – who came to Britain under Labour, no fewer than 70 per cent were from outside the EU. The notion that immigration is a problem of EU membership just isn’t true.

Besides numbers, there’s the problem of migrants’ fiscal contribution – though of course I do appreciate that people’s human potential is rather larger than whether they contribute more in taxes than they take out in benefits. But if we’re going to be vulgar and talk in these terms, there’s simply no comparison between the contribution of EU and non EU migrants. There’s a very good analysis of a recent UCL report on the question by Ruth Alexander on the BBC More or Less website. The report, on the face of it, bore out the standard contention that migrants pay in more than they take out in benefits. But only if you’re talking about recent arrivals, those who came between 2001 and 2011, most of whom are in their twenties. Of those, the arrivals from the EU (and almost certainly more from the older member states than the newer ones) contributed over a third more in tax than they took out in benefits; non-EU migrants contributed just two per cent more. And if you look at the figures from 1995-2011, including all migrants, the picture is even more dramatic. It appears that while those from the EU still pay £6,000 per capita more than they take out, those from outside it take out £21,000 per capita more than they contribute. Quite a difference, no? And I don’t think all of it is attributable to age – many people from the Indian sub-continent will have been here for quite a long time. In fact, it turns out that taking all migrants into account for that longer period, immigration costs the state £95 billion overall. Which is something to put in your pipe and smoke the next time someone declares as a matter of fact that migrants ‘contribute more’.

Of course, like every sweeping pronouncement, this one is riddled with exceptions to the rule. If you’re talking about Australians, none of the above applies. Seeing that most seem to come in their twenties for a while as part of a contemporary Grand Tour and return home to age and have children, and are more or less part of the family anyway, they’re pretty well the ideal immigrants.

Tags: BBC, Europe, Immigration, Nigel Farage