Vince Cable attends Liberal Democrat conference. Photo:Getty Images
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David Cameron can't keep blaming it all on the Liberal Democrats

Now he doesn't have those pesky Liberal Democrats to blame, David Cameron will soon find that his migration policies are a political and legal headache. 

So was it all Vince Cable’s fault? The latest figures show that the Government has once again missed its net migration target by a mile. The figures for net migration – the difference between immigration and emigration – for 2014 are more than three times David Cameron’s original target of net migration in the ‘tens of thousands’. But, listening to Cameron’s speech today, you could be forgiven for thinking that the failure of the Coalition Government’s net migration target could be pinned squarely on Lib Dem intransigence. Now, with a majority Conservative government, Cameron argued that he could put in place the reforms needed to get net migration down, to be set out in a new Immigration bill in the Queen’s Speech.

The truth is that, without the Lib Dems, the new government will still struggle to meet the net migration target – or its ‘ambition’, as it was referred to in the Conservative manifesto. There are three sets of measures the Prime Minister wants to pursue: a crackdown on illegal immigration; a renewed effort to support British people into employment (with an echo of Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’); and reforms to European freedom of movement through negotiations with the rest of the EU.

But none of these efforts are likely to have a significant impact on net migration. First, the vast majority of individuals making up the inward migration figures have a legal right to stay in the UK, so addressing illegal immigration is a red herring. Second, while some of Cameron’s efforts to support training and skills policy and address the exploitation of migrant workers are sensible, there is little evidence to suggest this will have a serious impact on numbers, at least in the short term, as they will not seriously deter most businesses from hiring migrant labour.

Third, Cameron’s efforts to achieve reforms to the benefit rules for migrants through EU negotiations will be a political and legal headache, particularly his proposed changes to in-work benefits, which will most likely require treaty change. Cameron will need all 27 other member states to agree to any treaty change – and it will be especially challenging to get Eastern European countries on board.

But, even if he does achieve welfare reforms there is little to suggest this will transform the net migration figures. The data suggests that EU nationals are less likely than average to claim unemployment benefits and only very slightly more likely than average to claim in-work benefits. There is some evidence to suggest that welfare states provision is one possible ‘pull factor’ for migrants, but decisions to migrate are influenced by a range of factors – including, crucially for the UK, shared language and a flexible labour market. It seems unlikely then that significant numbers of EU nationals will choose to not migrate to the UK on the basis of a change to the benefits/tax credits system.

Apart from these individual measures, there are structural challenges involved in achieving the net migration target – the UK’s relatively strong economy, flexible labour market, and linguistic and cultural connections will continue to make it an attractive place to come to. Even without the Lib Dems in government, departments are unlikely to want to cut their nose of to spite their face by drastically reducing skilled migrant labour from outside the EU. On top of this, even if there is a dip in net migration, it’s unlikely to last for long, due to the phenomenon of the “net migration bounce”: because migrants often leave Britain after a few years, fewer migrants coming here means fewer migrants leaving too. So a drop in migration to Britain would most likely lead to a drop in emigration as well – and consequently an increase in net immigration over time.

What does this all mean for the government? Rather than focusing relentlessly on the mirage of the net migration target, we need to do more to support communities affected by large increases in inward migration. In order to address public concerns practically and responsible, much more needs to be done to address the pressures of immigration, including on schools, GP places and housing, as well as on social cohesion.

The government’s commitment to a new fund to support communities most affected by high migration is an excellent first step that IPPR has advocated. There is a danger, though, that the fund is misused. In their manifesto, the Conservatives highlighted that the new ‘Controlling Migration Fund’ would be used to ‘ease pressures on services and to pay for additional immigration enforcement’. If the government wants to get serious about tackling the impact of migration, the fund should not simply be a cover for further enforcement efforts. This – not the net migration ambition – should be the real focus for migration policy over the next Parliament.

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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.