Mixed messages on immigration will appeal less to business than Labour's positive comments. Photo: Getty
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Strong business support for immigration causes more trouble for the Tory target

Businesses voice firm support for immigration at the annual CBI conference, as Theresa May tries to play down the Tories' net migration target.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, the Home Secretary Theresa May tried to play down her party's net migration target by calling it a "comment" and an "aim". Discussing David Cameron's apprently impossible promise to reduce annual net migration to below 100,000 during this parliament, she said:

When we made that comment, when we said . . . we would be aiming to bring the net migration down to the tens of thousands and we wanted to do that within this parliament – yes we were very clear that was what we wanted to do.

She was clearly downgrading the Prime Minister's target, which he called a “no ifs, no buts” commitment back in 2011, because it is becoming increasingly clear that the Tories will not achieve such a decrease in migrant population levels in this parliament.

This is an embarrassing story for the government, as a No 10 spokesman seemed to contradict May by remarking that "there is no change" in the policy, although also notably referring to it as an "objective".

Adding further to the Tories' immigration woes today are the business leaders gathered at the CBI's annual conference. During a speech by the president of CBI – which represents over 190,000 businesses – it became clear that supporting immigration into the UK is a key business priority. Mike Rake said:

63 per cent of CBI members say that it has been beneficial to their businesses; only 1 per cent say it has been negative. And it cuts both ways: approaching 2m Britons live elsewhere in Europe.

The economic evidence shows that immigration is of net benefit. EU migrants pay taxes, collect less benefits than British citizens, and many do not settle in the UK permanently.

Immigration has been and is part of the solution to the skills shortages faced by the UK.

With senior government figures such as May essentially conceding that the Tory net migration target is impossible, and business leaders emphasising the benefits of immigration, this puts the Tories in a tricky position as the outright anti-EU party, Ukip, continues gaining ground. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Ed Miliband is about to address the CBI conference with a wholeheartedly positive speech in favour of our EU membership. His passage on immigration will also appeal to the business community more than the Tories' mixed messages today:

I am not going to say we should close our borders. Because I don't believe we should. I am not going to play politics with our membership of the European Union because I don't believe it would make Britain stronger or more confident in the world.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Free movement isn't free: the truth about EU immigration

The UK does not need to leave the single market to restrict European migration - it already can.

In the Brexit negotiations, the government has unashamedly prioritised immigration control over the economy. The UK must leave the single market, ministers say, in order to restrict free movement. For decades, they lament, European immigration has been "uncontrolled", making it impossible to meet the government's target of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year.

It's worth noting that non-EU immigration alone (which ministers can limit) remains more than ten times this level (owing to the economic benefits). But more importantly, liberals and conservatives alike talk of "free movement" as if it is entirely free - it isn't.

Though EU citizens are initially permitted to live in any member state, after three months they must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student or have "sufficient resources" (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be "a burden on the benefits system". Far from being unconditional, then, the right to free movement is highly qualified.

The irony is that the supposedly immigration-averse UK has never enforced these conditions. Even under Theresa May, the Home Office judged that the cost of recording entry and exit dates was too high. Since most EU migrants are employed (and contribute significantly more in taxes than they do in benefits), there was no economic incentive to do so.

For some Brexiteers, of course, a job is not adequate grounds for an immigrant to remain. But even beyond implementing existing law, there is potential for further reform of free movement - even within the single market.

As Nick Clegg recently noted, shortly after the referendum, "a number of senior EU figures" were exploring a possible trade-off: "a commitment by the UK to pursue the least economically disruptive Brexit by maintaining participation in the single market and customs union, in return for a commitment to the reform of freedom of movement, including an 'emergency brake' on unusually high levels of intra-EU immigration." Liechtenstein, a member of the single market, has recently imposed quotas on EU migrants.

Yet with some exceptions, these facts are rarely heard in British political debate. Many Labour MPs, like their Conservative counterparts, support single market withdrawal to end free movement. The unheard truth that it isn't "free" could yet lead the UK to commit an avoidable act of economic self-harm.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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