Theresa May pledges immigration crackdown

The Home Secretary sets out new curbs on student visas and permanent settlement after the government

With her first major speech on immigration, Theresa May has begun to spell out how exactly the government plans to bring about a drastic reduction in the number of people settling in the UK.

First, more than 100,000 skilled workers and overseas students who come to Britain each year will lose the right to permanent settlement.

Second, the number of students who come to the UK to study below-degree-level courses – roughly 160,000 each year – will be slashed. They make up nearly half of the total of 320,000 international students, and are apparently more likely to overstay.

Perhaps taking into account that the Commons home affairs committee's Immigration Cap report last week underlined the "crucial importance" of international students to the UK, May stressed that students at degree level or above would not be affected.

Third, she backpedalled on David Cameron's Wednesday announcement that 30,000 migrants working for multinational companies would be exempt from the immigration cap. May said there would be a minimum-salary limit on this of roughly £40,000, to ensure that people are transferred for specialist or managerial positions only.

These measures are the first solid indication of how the government intends to keep its election promise of bringing net migration down into the "tens of thousands" from the current level of 196,000. The recent Commons report was unequivocal in its conclusion that "the proposed cap – unless it is set close to 100 per cent – will have little significant impact on overall immigration levels".

Clamping down on student visas and permanent settlement are the two obvious ways to go about reducing numbers, given that the flagship "immigration cap" policy is essentially unworkable. However, this will not necessarily provide the immediate results that the government needs.

Professor David Metcalf, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, points out that "any such changes [to permanent settlement], even if introduced now, would not take effect until 2013-14".

Analysing the committee's report last week, Alice Sachrajda of IPPR noted that:

The policy of a cap was introduced as an election promise and so a more immediate outcome will be needed if the government is going to save face politically.

. . . It is now abundantly clear that achieving its policy objective of drastically cutting net migration is going to be an uphill struggle for the government. The coalition faces an unpalatable choice between introducing an ineffective policy that it knows is damaging to the economy and public services, or by finding a way to abandon or redefine the target.

The headache caused by the unfeasible and misguided policy of the "cap" is certainly not cured yet. Taken alone, these measures are unlikely to meet the arbitrary target of at least halving net migration. Taking steps to avoid damaging business or reducing university revenue even further, such as allowing intra-company transfers and degree-level students, makes the target even more distant.

More importantly, the government has yet to address the question of top businessmen, scientists and researchers from outside the EU, who still look likely to be the losers from more draconian immigration rules. A Nobel Prize-winning scientist (£) points out in the Times today that he might not have carried out research in Britain had these rules applied in the past – even if he had gained a visa, members of his team might not have done.

The government would be well advised to drop this meaningless target altogether.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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