Net migration – a target they wish they’d never set
Today’s migration statistics will make worrying reading for Theresa May and Damian Green. Net migration to the UK remains stubbornly high at around 250,000 a year, leaving the government no closer to meeting its much-vaunted target of reducing net migration to less than 100,000 a year. Total immigration continues to be stable at just under 600,000 a year (a level which has been similar since 2004) and emigration at just under 350,000 (down from a peak of well over 400,000 in 2008). The net migration target is a textbook example of how political imperatives can lead to bad policy.
The government have set themselves a target over which they exercise only limited control – they can do very little to directly affect either emigration nor EU immigration. They have based the target on a problematic measure because net migration figures are based on survey data and give a much better picture of trends than they do of absolute levels. And they have set a timeframe which means that they have to act quickly – lags in the data mean that net migration needs to fall by 2013/14 if the government is to go to the electorate in 2015 with a convincing account of its record.
All this leaves ministers in a very difficult position. Despite ‘bearing down’ on all non-EEA immigration categories (work, study and family), and provoking significant resistance from (among others) business and the education sector, the painful policy changes of the last two years have not yet done much to reduce net migration. Immigration for work has declined somewhat in that time, but this is driven largely by the continued weakness of the economy, rather than by a tougher visa regime (the decline started in 2007).
Recent reforms to the student visa regime are showing some early signs of ‘success’ on the government’s terms – student immigration is down 16% in the year to March 2012, and quarterly figures show an even sharper decline. But this ‘success’ will come at a significant economic cost – education is one of the UK’s most successful export sectors, but this global position will be quickly eroded if the government continues its direction of travel on immigration. Damian Green is boasting today of a 62% decline in student visas in the first quarter of 2012 but if you think of international students as ‘education export customers’ instead and that boast starts to look economically illiterate.
Even worse, the ‘benefits’ of reduced student immigration in terms of reduced net migration will be short-lived because the vast majority of students only stay for a few years, a short-term fall in immigration will be followed, as night follows day, but a fall in emigration which will wipe out most of the impact on net migration (although possibly not until after the 2015 election).
So far, the government has had a relatively easy ride from the likes of Migration Watch, who lobbied hard for the net migration target in the first place. But if net migration remains at current high levels this will change, and Ministers may find themselves attacked both for imposing unnecessary costs on the economy in tough times, and for failing to deliver reduced net migration: the definition of a political lose-lose position.
We need a serious debate about immigration in the UK (and numbers do matter) but the net migration target focuses politics and policy exclusively on a numbers game, leaving no room for the kinds of discussion that the public want to have about jobs, communities and identity. Failing to meet the net migration target also risks undermining public confidence in the immigration system at a time when UKBA is already under serious pressure. To coin a phrase that’s all too familiar to the Home Office, it’s time for the government to admit that the net migration target is not fit for purpose.