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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle