25 May 2017

Net migration: ‘Phoney war’ over target hides failure to find alternative

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Responding to publication of new immigration figures from the Office of National Statistics, showing net migration at 248,000, for 2016, British Future Director Sunder Katwala said:

“This is the 30th quarter in a row that the net migration target has been missed but it’s something of a ‘phoney war’ to focus now on the level of the target and the failure to meet it. This is the time when we should be debating and designing a new post-Brexit immigration policy to restore public trust in the system.

“Opponents are right to criticise the target, which has been an abject failure – but they should be presenting a viable alternative too.”


Extract from Immigration: The manifesto challenge – 10 steps to restore public trust on immigration and integration

Targets matter in immigration politics. There will be limits to immigration in a post-Brexit immigration system. The migration targets that a government set have both practical and symbolic role: they inform the policy choices that governments make. They demonstrate that the British government and parliament can set migration policy. And they give the electorate a clear commitment about what the government is trying to achieve, so that they can gauge its competence and effectiveness in delivering what it has promised, or not.

In 2010 and 2015, the Conservative manifesto made pledges to reduce net migration to sustainable levels, defining this as net migration in the tens of thousands. The Conservative-led governments were unable to keep this promise, however. It was impossible to guarantee net migration at that level while Britain was a member of the European Union, as EU free movement rules meant that the UK could not control the numbers of EU citizens who chose to live and work in the EU. The government did not make policy choices about non-EU migration which were compatible with its headline pledge either.

Once Britain leaves the European Union, it could become possible to make a serious effort to meet the target, in the medium-term at least, though that would entail a willingness to make much deeper reductions in non-EU migration than the government has chosen to make, with significant cuts to forms of skilled and student migration that have broad public support. A government that does not believe that deep post-Brexit cuts to non-EU skilled migration would fit with its post-Brexit ‘global Britain’ agenda to deepen global economic ties would need to revise the current target to one that it intends to achieve.

Even if the Prime Minister intends to make a serious effort to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’, it is very unlikely that she could make a credible promise to deliver this during the next Parliament. The first Article 50 stage of the Brexit negotiations will not conclude until 2019. If the talks are successful, there is likely to be a transitional period. Political parties can certainly pledge to end EU free movement in the 2017 general election campaign, but should be wary of pledging a specific timetable for this, unless they wish to rule out any transitional arrangements after March 2019, or to introduce new ‘red line’ conditions which would constrain the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand.

In the 2017 campaign, it would be better to focus on the principles for a new immigration framework, a clear commitment to replace free movement, and to avoid making any specific commitment to the levels of net migration that can be achieved before the end of the Parliament.

If the Conservative party does want to maintain its ‘tens of thousands’ ambition, it would be strongly in the interests of the next government to make clear that this is being softened to a longer-term aspiration, and that there is no pledge to achieve a specific level by 2022. Failing to do that would have a corrosive impact, in that each quarter’s immigration statistics will again produce yet another round of headlines about broken promises, corroding the Government and the party’s reputation for competence on immigration.

The opposition parties who are critical of the net migration target should set out what new targets they would introduce to replace the existing one. British Future recommends that the political parties move away from a one-size-fits-all net migration target – replacing it with a different set of public measures. Our recommendation is that the next government should set immigration targets which cover forms of immigration that are within the government’s control, and which are flows that the government seeks to limit or reduce.

Since emigration levels are not subject to government control, a new headline target should be about the desired level of immigration of foreign nationals to the UK, rather than net migration, though the government may take shifting levels of emigration into account too when considering its immigration targets for the following year. Another alternative to an overall immigration target would be to set specific targets, or limits, for those migration flows which the government intended to limit or reduce.

Immigration statistics make sense to the public and help to enable an informed public debate when they fit the public’s own common sense intuitions about what is and is not ‘immigration’. It would be better to report the return of British nationals to the UK and student migration separately, and to omit these from the headline target. Those migration flows that are not subject to specific numerical targets – such as EU skilled migration in the system proposed above, and refugee protection – should be reported transparently and scrutinised and debated.

Hold Britain’s first-ever Comprehensive Immigration Review

Since Brexit is a reset moment for immigration policy, the UK should hold its first ever Comprehensive Immigration Review, as governments have done in the past to address national security and public spending, but which has never been done on immigration. The current ‘tens of thousands’ target did not arise from any serious policy analysis, but from a soundbite that was popular, and it defines ‘normal’ levels of net migration as those that prevailed in the early 1990s. The remit of the Review should address top-level issues, rather than the Migration Advisory Committee’s inputs to policy being restricted to narrow micro-policy issues.

A Comprehensive Immigration Review: the key issues it should address:

Read the full report here


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