Separating out student immigration from net migration figures would be entirely compatible with what the two parties of government signed up to in the Coalition Agreement, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes told a British Future and CentreForum fringe meeting at his party’s conference in Brighton.
“The Coalition agreement contains a reference to a cap, but not to a number,” he said. It was Conservative policy to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands, but that numerical target was not a shared government commitment.
“I will be very interested to see whether that is delivered. It isn’t delivered, then we should go back to the text. It doesn’t say anywhere what the figure should be. We agreed to the principle of a cap. What the figure should be a matter of evaluation on an annual basis. You know our view is that that should be on a sensible basis”, Hughes explained.
“Very interestingly, if you look at the Coalition Agreement, it would allow us to have a different column for students,” he said, citing the language which was used to commit the Coalition to capping immigration in the parties’ shared contract for government. “What the Coalition Agreement says is that: ‘We will introduce an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants admitted into the UK to live and work’ .” “That does not mention the third category, beyond that, which is that people come here to study, and not to settle permanently. So I think there is scope to win the argument”, he said, noting that student numbers would be fully reported, allowing those who wanted to to calculate the overall total too.
He also said he disagreed strongly with LibDem colleagues in the European Parliament who were critical of the British opt-out from the EU Schengen area: “I think it is really important that the UK is not a member of the Schengen agreement. As we are islands, I think it is important that we have our own checks at our own borders, because I think people are not going to trust the checks at the other side.”
The fringe meeting’s title Is It Possible to be Liberal and Popular on Immigration? was the first of three events which British Future, a non-partisan think-tank, is holding on the public politics of immigration across the conference season.
Pollster Peter Kellner said: “My short answer to the question would be no,” said Kellner, President of YouGov. “But, as George Galloway might put it, no does not necessarily mean no in this case.” Though there was broad public support for reducing migration, the level of priority which voters give to the issue was easily exaggerated by opponents of migration, he suggested. “Immigration is not as salient as some pressure groups seem to think,” he said. “It comes high up the list of issues facing the country. But it tumbles right down the list when you ask how much an issue matters to you and your family,” said Kellner.
Economist Vicky Pryce told the fringe meeting that proper controls on illegal migration were important, but argued that a government whose first priority was supposed to be restoring economic growth had adopted a migration policy which would hold faltering growth back.
“The Office for Budget Responsibility is still clinging on to the hope that net migration will remain at the level of 200,000 even to maintain a very small amount of economic growth. The economic case is still there. It is still strong. What saddens me is that we are not making it. As a result, the UK is perceived to not want foreign students. The UK is perceived to not want Chinese tourists”, she said.
British Future trustee and former CentreForum director Alasdair Murray recounted his own experience as a LibDem candidate, contesting Bournemouth West in the 2010 General Election. He knew that general economic benefits of migration did not translate easily into having something relevant to say to a voter citing his personal experience of seeing the hourly rate for their job falling from £9 to £7. But, he said, the party was not able to explain coherently and concisely to voters why it believed an “amnesty” was necessary and right to deal with long-term migrants without legal status.
But Murray warned the party against retreating from the challenge of securing public consent on migration in the face of hostile attitudes: “The temptation for us must be to think ‘let’s not talk about migration at all’ and apart from a few textbook spats over students, we haven’t done much talking about it. We seem to want to avoid it. But we shouldn’t – and by the next election we won’t be able to,” said Murray.
Read a full report from the session here, or watch the videos below.