Conservatives put politics before policy on immigration

A target for net migration is too blunt an instrument.

The last Labour government was accused of not giving enough speeches on immigration. Personally, I doubt that was its real problem; but the present government have clearly decided they won't make that mistake. Today's speech by immigration minister Damian Green generated what for him will be a gratifying amount of coverage, running from last weekend's Sunday Times through this morning's papers and into today's broadcast news. After all the build-up, the actual speech seemed pretty thin: trailed as "heralding a transformation" in immigration policy, it was largely a restatement of what ministers have been saying for the last two years.

Its main purpose seems to be as a warm-up act for the real announcement, presumably by Green's boss Theresa May in a week or so, on two major policy changes the government consulted on last year: first, plans to turn the majority of economic migrants into "guest workers", required to go home after five years; and second, plans to restrict the ability of residents to bring in spouses or partners from abroad.

In both cases, the criterion the government proposes to use is income. Working migrants wanting to stay beyond five years will have to satisfy a minimum income requirement, which will be fixed somewhere between £31,000 and £49,000 (probably close to the lower end of that range). So too will British citizens and other established residents wanting to bring in a spouse or partner from abroad: in this case the requirement will be around £26,000 for the household (equivalent to the national average for an individual).

IPPR set out a detailed critique of these plans last autumn: the general idea of a guest worker scheme here, the proposed income threshold here, and the proposed income requirement for family migration here. In summary, while there is nothing wrong with the principles which are cited to justify the proposals, they are a crude way of implementing them.

The government's own advisers, the Migration Advisory Committee, concede that the guest worker plan may 'have a negative impact on GDP and, to a lesser extent, on GDP per head', and may also deprive Britain of some of our best migrants - or even discourage them from coming here in the first place. The majority of economic migrants don't stay permanently anyway, but they value the option - and if Britain no longer offers it, the 'brightest and best' may choose to go elsewhere. Rather than trying to turn economic migrants into guest workers, the government would be better advised to go with the grain of migration patterns, which are becoming increasingly temporary anyway. For example, they could divert a share of National Insurance Contributions for each migrant to act as an incentive to return home. Such an approach would be fairer for those who come here, work hard, and play by the rules. It would also be more realistic, and better for our economy.

Similarly, there is nothing wrong in principle with making the immigration system "more selective". Within that, it makes sense to give some priority to wealthy migrants - supporters of immigration have always cited its positive fiscal impact, and obviously that is higher for wealthy migrants - and it also makes sense, especially in the current climate, to ask whether someone who is dependent on benefits should be allowed to bring in a spouse or partner from overseas. But the government is going much further: essentially their approach is, if you're a wealthy migrant, you can come, you can stay as long as you like; if you're a wealthy resident, you can marry whoever you like; but for everyone else, it is going to get much more difficult. We're not talking about people who are destitute or living on benefits, we are talking about people who are working and getting an average wage. Migrants will still be invited to come and work at these wages -between £20,000 and £30,000 - to fill jobs where we lack the skills or nobody else wants to do the work, but after five years they will be asked to leave, regardless of the contribution they have made or could make in the future. Likewise, not just people living on benefits, but almost half the British population, could lose the right to marry and live with someone from abroad.

Green's speech also highlights a deeper problem with the way Conservative ministers interpret "selective immigration". When Green said today that "everyone who comes here must be selected to make a positive contribution", he comes close to implying that the immigration system can be designed to select individuals who are guaranteed to be a success. This is the same mind-set which two weeks ago led Green and his colleague Chris Grayling to present the mere fact that some migrants end up claiming benefits as a problem in itself - deliberately obscuring the facts about the proportion of migrants who end up claiming benefits, and what that shows about the net contribution of immigration as a whole. (When Green talked today about wanting to "raise the tone" of the debate, he could start by apologizing for that previous intervention, which prompted a second rebuke from the UK Statistics Authority in the last six months.) More fundamentally, the current Conservative mindset simply misunderstands the nature of immigration, and its potential, human as well as financial. Green insisted again today that the government wants to attract the "brightest and best", but it just isn't possible to identify individually the next generation of entrepreneurs or nobel laureates. The history of migration is one of talented, motivated people who often start from fairly humble beginnings, and spend years working hard and making sacrifices to better their lot: it can take many years to pay off, but when it does, it can do so spectacularly, for them and for the society which has offered them a home.

In the end, whatever you think of the proposals reiterated today, they are potentially very significant changes, which have been rather neglected as the political debate has continued to focus on overall immigration numbers. To that extent, Green's comments about wanting to broaden the debate beyond overall numbers are a welcome invitation to re-engage with detailed policy in advance of the final announcement - as the Guardian among others have done this morning.

Critics of the proposals should take heart from the evidence that, while the broad objective of reducing immigration has strong support, there is far more ambiguous support for their detailed policies. The area where people really want to see reductions, apart from illegal immigration, is among low-skill migrants - but for many years now, the great majority of low-skill migrants have come from the EU, which the government can do nothing about (at least in the short to medium term). Only a minority support reductions in the categories which the government is actually cutting, namely foreign students and skilled migrants. It is perverse to end up targeting these categories simply because they are the easiest to control, especially given that they are the most economically valuable. Moreover, the problem for democratic legitimacy - and for the mature national consensus which Green insisted again today is the Conservatives' real aim - is that they, the only mainstream party to advocate a big overall reduction in immigration before the election, never attempted to explain the difficulties and trade-offs involved, implying instead that it would be a simple matter of 'getting it under control'. Along with many other observers, IPPR predicts they will fail to hit their target of reducing net immigration to the "tens of thousands" by 2015. Their strategic judgment must be, that they will make enough of a dent that voters will feel that, in contrast to the other two parties, at least they tried. But there is a risk that instead, voters will see this as another example of politicians promising what they never really intended to deliver, adding further to people's disillusionment on this emotive issue, while doing a lot of damage along the way. Overall numbers do matter: this was one thing the last Labour government did get wrong. But a target for net migration is too blunt an instrument, and there are too many areas - skilled workers, overseas students, family migration - in which it is distorting policy, creating unfairness, and damaging our economic interests.

Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cav_

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era