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  1. Politics
2 February 2012

Conservatives put politics before policy on immigration

A target for net migration is too blunt an instrument.

By Matt Cavanagh

The last Labour government was accused of not giving enough speeches on immigration. Personally, I doubt that was its real problem; but the present government have clearly decided they won’t make that mistake. Today’s speech by immigration minister Damian Green generated what for him will be a gratifying amount of coverage, running from last weekend’s Sunday Times through this morning’s papers and into today’s broadcast news. After all the build-up, the actual speech seemed pretty thin: trailed as “heralding a transformation” in immigration policy, it was largely a restatement of what ministers have been saying for the last two years.

Its main purpose seems to be as a warm-up act for the real announcement, presumably by Green’s boss Theresa May in a week or so, on two major policy changes the government consulted on last year: first, plans to turn the majority of economic migrants into “guest workers”, required to go home after five years; and second, plans to restrict the ability of residents to bring in spouses or partners from abroad.

In both cases, the criterion the government proposes to use is income. Working migrants wanting to stay beyond five years will have to satisfy a minimum income requirement, which will be fixed somewhere between £31,000 and £49,000 (probably close to the lower end of that range). So too will British citizens and other established residents wanting to bring in a spouse or partner from abroad: in this case the requirement will be around £26,000 for the household (equivalent to the national average for an individual).

IPPR set out a detailed critique of these plans last autumn: the general idea of a guest worker scheme here, the proposed income threshold here, and the proposed income requirement for family migration here. In summary, while there is nothing wrong with the principles which are cited to justify the proposals, they are a crude way of implementing them.

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The government’s own advisers, the Migration Advisory Committee, concede that the guest worker plan may ‘have a negative impact on GDP and, to a lesser extent, on GDP per head’, and may also deprive Britain of some of our best migrants – or even discourage them from coming here in the first place. The majority of economic migrants don’t stay permanently anyway, but they value the option – and if Britain no longer offers it, the ‘brightest and best’ may choose to go elsewhere. Rather than trying to turn economic migrants into guest workers, the government would be better advised to go with the grain of migration patterns, which are becoming increasingly temporary anyway. For example, they could divert a share of National Insurance Contributions for each migrant to act as an incentive to return home. Such an approach would be fairer for those who come here, work hard, and play by the rules. It would also be more realistic, and better for our economy.

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Similarly, there is nothing wrong in principle with making the immigration system “more selective”. Within that, it makes sense to give some priority to wealthy migrants – supporters of immigration have always cited its positive fiscal impact, and obviously that is higher for wealthy migrants – and it also makes sense, especially in the current climate, to ask whether someone who is dependent on benefits should be allowed to bring in a spouse or partner from overseas. But the government is going much further: essentially their approach is, if you’re a wealthy migrant, you can come, you can stay as long as you like; if you’re a wealthy resident, you can marry whoever you like; but for everyone else, it is going to get much more difficult. We’re not talking about people who are destitute or living on benefits, we are talking about people who are working and getting an average wage. Migrants will still be invited to come and work at these wages -between £20,000 and £30,000 – to fill jobs where we lack the skills or nobody else wants to do the work, but after five years they will be asked to leave, regardless of the contribution they have made or could make in the future. Likewise, not just people living on benefits, but almost half the British population, could lose the right to marry and live with someone from abroad.

Green’s speech also highlights a deeper problem with the way Conservative ministers interpret “selective immigration”. When Green said today that “everyone who comes here must be selected to make a positive contribution”, he comes close to implying that the immigration system can be designed to select individuals who are guaranteed to be a success. This is the same mind-set which two weeks ago led Green and his colleague Chris Grayling to present the mere fact that some migrants end up claiming benefits as a problem in itself – deliberately obscuring the facts about the proportion of migrants who end up claiming benefits, and what that shows about the net contribution of immigration as a whole. (When Green talked today about wanting to “raise the tone” of the debate, he could start by apologizing for that previous intervention, which prompted a second rebuke from the UK Statistics Authority in the last six months.) More fundamentally, the current Conservative mindset simply misunderstands the nature of immigration, and its potential, human as well as financial. Green insisted again today that the government wants to attract the “brightest and best”, but it just isn’t possible to identify individually the next generation of entrepreneurs or nobel laureates. The history of migration is one of talented, motivated people who often start from fairly humble beginnings, and spend years working hard and making sacrifices to better their lot: it can take many years to pay off, but when it does, it can do so spectacularly, for them and for the society which has offered them a home.

In the end, whatever you think of the proposals reiterated today, they are potentially very significant changes, which have been rather neglected as the political debate has continued to focus on overall immigration numbers. To that extent, Green’s comments about wanting to broaden the debate beyond overall numbers are a welcome invitation to re-engage with detailed policy in advance of the final announcement – as the Guardian among others have done this morning.

Critics of the proposals should take heart from the evidence that, while the broad objective of reducing immigration has strong support, there is far more ambiguous support for their detailed policies. The area where people really want to see reductions, apart from illegal immigration, is among low-skill migrants – but for many years now, the great majority of low-skill migrants have come from the EU, which the government can do nothing about (at least in the short to medium term). Only a minority support reductions in the categories which the government is actually cutting, namely foreign students and skilled migrants. It is perverse to end up targeting these categories simply because they are the easiest to control, especially given that they are the most economically valuable. Moreover, the problem for democratic legitimacy – and for the mature national consensus which Green insisted again today is the Conservatives’ real aim – is that they, the only mainstream party to advocate a big overall reduction in immigration before the election, never attempted to explain the difficulties and trade-offs involved, implying instead that it would be a simple matter of ‘getting it under control’. Along with many other observers, IPPR predicts they will fail to hit their target of reducing net immigration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015. Their strategic judgment must be, that they will make enough of a dent that voters will feel that, in contrast to the other two parties, at least they tried. But there is a risk that instead, voters will see this as another example of politicians promising what they never really intended to deliver, adding further to people’s disillusionment on this emotive issue, while doing a lot of damage along the way. Overall numbers do matter: this was one thing the last Labour government did get wrong. But a target for net migration is too blunt an instrument, and there are too many areas – skilled workers, overseas students, family migration – in which it is distorting policy, creating unfairness, and damaging our economic interests.

Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cav_