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18 September 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:49pm

This MAC report should kill off the net migration target for good

The obsession with looking tough on migration is a smokescreen letting politicians off the hook.

By Peter Starkings

Today’s Migration Advisory Committee report is the most comprehensive analysis of immigration this country has ever seen. It relies on expert research from the best in the business, and lays out the impact of immigration from public services to pay, the public finances to productivity taking in crime, skills and even general well-being along the way. 

What the analysis shows is that immigration has been good for Britain. The migrants who arrived in 2016 will make a net contribution of £27bn over their lifetime in the UK. Overall European migrants pay £5bn a year more in taxes than they take out in benefits and public services. So cutting immigration means higher taxes or cuts to public services for the rest of us.

And far from acting as a drain on public services the MAC shows that actually, when it comes to the NHS and social care, migrant workers provide care that no one else could, filling high and low-skilled jobs in industries suffering from chronic staff shortages, as our research has shown.

Elsewhere, the MAC put a lot of the old myths to bed – ranging from benefits to schools to jobs – with this report showing that migrants cause none of the problems for which they are blamed, in fact European workers boost productivity, innovation and training.

So there we have it, immigration isn’t the route of all evil after all. So where does that leave us? Well, first and foremost we have to move away from this government’s disastrous experiment with targets and caps. The cap on skilled workers – which the MAC rightly suggests should be scrapped – serves no purpose other than to prevent our public services, universities and business attracting the world-class talent our country needs to succeed.

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But the cap, of course, comes directly from the worst policy of them all – the net migration target. Cabinet ministers from Liam Fox to Sajid Javid have been falling over themselves to signal it should be ditched, and rightly so. The logic of the target suggests fewer international students – an industry worth £17bn a year – would be good for Britain, that we should celebrate every time an entrepreneur leaves the UK to set up a world-class business elsewhere, and that the 57 per cent of European nurses planning to leave the NHS, and the 96 per cent drop off in new registrations, is somehow good news. It’s not.

With faults like this it’s no wonder the Prime Minister is practically the last woman left in Britain that will defend it. But even beyond the policy, on its own terms – as a soundbite – it’s been a disaster. Over the years the cap has been in place, the government has never come close to meeting it; even if we indeed remove European migration altogether, the target is still nowhere near in sight. The reason is simple, the policies that would be required would be ruinous so the government doesn’t even try, eroding trust along the way as a flagship target is ignored.

That failure exposes a wider truth – that the obsessions with looking tough on migration and bringing down numbers is a smokescreen that lets politicians off the hook. As today’s report shows, slashing immigration isn’t the answer to the burning injustices Theresa May talked about on the steps of Downing Street.

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Our life chances are too closely tied to those of our parents, productivity is low, the cost of living is too high, and our public services are running out of cash. Our NHS faces a staffing crisis, as does social care, welfare reform is a mess, the trains don’t run on time, and our further education sector is scandalously neglected. None of these problems is caused or worsened by immigration.

The one public policy choice that will have an enormous impact on our pay, pubic services and well-being is Brexit – and it’s here that the MAC report has limitations. As they make clear in the report, the MAC was asked to make the case for a new immigration system in isolation, but in the real world immigration policy is directly tied to the Brexit negotiations and if we leave, the trade deals we make with other countries.

And the hard facts are these – any Brexit will make Britain worse off, but the difference between remaining in the single market and a no-deal departure is about £1bn every week. As Global Future research shows when given the choice the public are clear, they would rather maintain Free Movement and close trade links with Europe than throw it all away – and face the higher taxes or cuts to public services that would inevitably result.

The MAC report represents a vital step forward in our understanding of the impact of immigration in this country, but actions have consequences. Even within the isolation it imagines the MAC accept that limits on low-skilled migration could damage our ability to attract high skilled migrants as ‘collateral damage’.

The fact is the UK succeeds as an open nation that looks out to the world and succeeds in it. So the true lesson of today’s report is that immigration is not the problem, and we shouldn’t let politicians pretend that it. Britain would be better off if we kept free movement, kept close trading ties to Europe and got on with solving the real problems our country faces – and that’s what we should do.   

Peter Starkings is the director of Global Future.