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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.