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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.