The net migration target is bad policy and bad politics

The cuts to foreign student numbers come at a significant economic cost to the UK.

The latest migration statistics have been met with the usual barrage of claim and counter-claim. The government is claiming the fall in net migration as a sign of success in its efforts to get net migration down to less than 100,000 a year. On the other side, the education sector (particularly further education and English language colleges) will see the 26 per cent decline in foreign student visas as a disaster for the economy. Meanwhile, the latest report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration highlights failures to enforce student visa rules properly.

It is clear that it's premature of the government to declare victory on the net migration target – there’s a long way to go yet. Yesterday's figures showed net migration in the year to March 2012 of 183,000, against the government’s target of less than 100,000. Although ministers have tightened up immigration rules across the board, the main effects on migration numbers have come from changes to the student visa regime. The net migration figures published yesterday only cover the period up to March 2012 – more up-to-date student visa data suggest that further falls in the net migration figures are likely in the coming months. But the impact of declining foreign student numbers on net migration is likely to be short-lived. Because most students only stay in the UK for a short time, reduced immigration today means reduced emigration in two or three years’ time, which could see net migration rise again. That would further undermine public confidence in the government’s ability to deliver on immigration.

It is also clear that cuts to student numbers come at a significant economic cost to the UK. Although government rhetoric around student visas is usually focused on abuse of the system, it is clear that the falls in foreign student numbers required for the government to meet its net migration target would mean drastic cuts to the numbers of genuine foreign students. Indeed, it is hard to argue that today’s statistics show anything other than a reduction in the number of genuine students coming to the UK. All this is costing the economy billions (as the government’s own impact assessment acknowledged) at a time when we can ill-afford to reduce export earnings (which is what foreign student fees and spending are), and is leading to more jobs being lost in the UK.

And none of this will help assuage public concerns about immigration if UKBA cannot carry out the basic functions of enforcement. It is meaningless to talk about making the rules tougher if you can’t enforce the ones you already have. It may even be that the government’s single-minded focus on reducing net migration creates new enforcement problems in the future. For example, "student visitors" who come to the UK for less than 12 months do not count as migrants for the purposes of net migration figures, and are subject to less rigorous checks than those coming through the main student visa route. The number of student visitor visas issued is continuing to rise, perhaps because tough action on student visas aimed at meeting the net migration target has led to a displacement effect. The government needs to be sure that it has the systems in place to deal with this.

All this confirms that the net migration target is leading to bad policy. It may also be bad politics. The government need to be brave enough to change their approach, or at least exclude students from the net migration target. Labour need to admit past mistakes, but avoid getting into a "bidding war" on migration numbers, as Ed Balls acknowledged yesterday. Politicians from all sides need to be prepared to have an honest discussion with the public about the difficult trade-offs that migration policy presents to policy makers. Sadly, the ritual debate about net migration does not move us further towards that goal.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

A protester takes part in a demonstration outside the Home Office over restrictions on foreign students. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.