Sajid Javid has stated his objective to ‘take another look’ at immigration policy. He is right - there is a better way, and one that doesn’t involve abandoning targets altogether.
The Government should manage different forms of migration in a way that explicitly meets the nation’s economic and strategic interest: rather than a crude, single target, different targets should be set for different types of migration. In other words, rather than focus on overall net migration, there should be separate counts for EU citizens, refugees, students, families and skilled migrants.
An approach that differentiates between different types of migrants would have five important benefits.
First, it would stop us clamping down on flows of migration which are incontrovertibly beneficial, such as international students and investors. Here, the very notion of targets is questionable - does it make sense to limit the numbers of talented people willing to pay high fees to universities? And why make life difficult for investors who come to Britain to set up businesses, create jobs and incentivise trade?
Second, it would enable the Government to calibrate flows where there is evidence of downsides, for example, downward pressure on wages for low paid workers. Conversely, it would allow for a more sophisticated view on whether to limit flows of foreign workers into sectors where there are labour shortages. Such limitations may work in instances where the Government or employers are willing to foot the bill for more training for British workers, but where this investment is not forthcoming, then choking off access to migrant workers for employers is simply a short cut to failure.
Third, abolishing a net migration target would have important humanitarian repercussions. The existence of a net migration target was one of the factors that constrained Britain’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis. Even when charities and church groups have stepped up and offered to foot the bill for resettling vulnerable refugees, the Government has balked. Having a specific target for refugee flows would allow us to pull our weight much more actively in the future, particularly when there is public will to do so.
Fourth, in the coming years, the Government will have to pull out all the stops to ensure that key sectors of the British economy don’t haemorrhage skills and talent. Brexit is already sowing doubts in the minds of many of the best minds who choose to make Britain their home. The falling pound, the rising cost of air travel, a pervading sense that they are not wanted and the reality of high housing prices in exchange for comparatively low living standards will make these highly mobile individuals responsive to the invitations of Dublin, Frankfurt and Paris. These cities have not hesitated to roll out the red carpet for the brightest and best who currently opt for Britain. The effects are already beign felt in the net migration data.
Fifth and finally, a disaggregated target would enable the Government to better manage what has become a toxic public debate. By pegging its success or failure solely on its ability to limit migration, rather than on whether immigration policy is helping us meet our objectives as a nation, the Government has done itself no favours. We need to raise the standard of this debate.
If the reports are right, it seems the new Home Secretary is up for taking on this fight. The benefits of having a more strategic immigration system have to outweigh the risks associated with political back pedalling.
Associate Director for the Migration, Integration and Communities team at IPPR. She tweets @PhoebeGriffith
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