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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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