Mandelson's "search parties" are the sort of immigration policy the Mail should adore

How do you make sure that migration helps? Pick and choose who you invite.

The Daily Mail's Tim Shipman quotes Peter Mandelson at a rally for the think-tank Progress:

In 2004 when as a Labour government, we were not only welcoming people to come into this country to work, we were sending out search parties for people and encouraging them, in some cases, to take up work in this country.

Shipman frames the comments as "a stunning confirmation that the Blair and Brown governments deliberately engineered mass immigration", but I see no evidence of that. Instead, it sounds like Mandelson is talking about the sort of programmes which were aimed at getting high-skilled immigrants to come to Britain – you know, like that one that David Cameron went to India to promote.

The fact is that programmes to attract migrants who could bring rare skills or high investment to Britain are the absolute least that a minister with a portfolio like Peter Mandelson's should have been doing. The BMA estimates a cost of £270,000 to train a doctor, rising to over half a million pounds for a consultant. Those costs are "for the most part, borne by the wider NHS"; so if nothing else, it makes sense to "send out search parties" for foreign doctors to encourage them to come here. So long as the search parties don't cost £200,000 a person, at least.

And it gets even better if you encourage entrepreneurs to come over to Britain. We're talking about people who will bring money to Britain and spend it on creating work. That's basically the holy grail of immigration policy, and something that even the Daily Mail usually supports.

In fact, the extent to which Britain should run "search parties" is entirely linked to the extent to which the Daily Mail's preferred migration policy becomes law. If we have an open borders policy, it doesn't really matter which people apply to work in Britain – the idea is that the growth in working-age population provides a boost to the economy almost regardless of who comes over. But when we start capping the number of migrants, then it becomes much more important that we encourage those who'll provide the most economic benefit to Britain to apply for visas, while discouraging those who might provide only a marginal boost to the economy. That's the logic of the Government's negative advertising in Romania and Bulgaria, for instance.

Of course, none of that matters if your reasons for not liking migrants aren't economic but, er, "cultural". But the argument that Mandelson's search parties "made it hard for Britons to get work" isn't based in fact, but in that curious sort of common sense economics which has little relation to the real world. In reality, they were exactly the sort of policy which the Daily Mails should adore.

Peter Mandelson in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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