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The Government's net migration target has become a quarterly symbol of failure. While EU migration makes the task harder, the reasons for failing to reduce migration are complex and involve difficult trade-offs. Ministers should be honest about that.
27 August 2015
Once every three months, when official immigration figures are released, we have the same media storm, much to the embarrassment of the Government. But, rather than being some political masterstroke of the Opposition or UKIP, this is purely self-inflicted.
The net immigration target was downgraded to an ‘ambition’ in the 2015 election manifesto, but the Government continues to persist with it. However, business doesn’t like it. And, while it is clear that the electorate is concerned about high levels of immigration, a quarterly reminder that the Government is unable to meet its targets can only add fuel to the fire. The figures are often accompanied by yet another ‘crackdown’ on something or another.
Today’s figures are another blow to the Government. The total net immigration figure has increased to 330,000, up by 94,000 on the previous year. Net migration of EU citizens showed a statistically significant increase to 183,000 (up 53,000 from March 2014). The increase in non-EU net migration to 196,000 (up 39,000) was also statistically significant.
EU free movement is often blamed by ministers as the reason why the Government’s target is regularly missed. Clearly, largely unrestricted EU free movement makes the task much harder and, as you can see from the graph below, it is an increasing share of the UK’s net immigration.
However, this would be a much better excuse if the Government had managed to reduce non-EU migration significantly – the part it is able to ‘control’. However, non-EU migration continues to increase and remains a larger share than EU migration (though the EU share could soon overtake it). Even if net EU migration were zero, the Government would still be missing its target by nearly 100%. Surely, this illustrates the political folly of the Government’s stated ‘ambition’?
Public concerns about immigration are no doubt fuelled by many different issues, many of which are perfectly understandable. The greater pressure on public services, schools and housing being one such example. Another is the impact of new low-skilled workers on wages at the lower end of the labour market. Policies should focus on these challenges rather than raise expectations that cannot conceivably be met. This is not to say that the Government should not set robust migration policies with the aim of reducing migration, given that’s what the electorate is voting for. Some have suggested new targets for non-EU migration, for example.
But, surely, it would be better for the national debate about immigration if there was more honesty about the many reasons why the Government is struggling to meet its target and that in this field, as in many others, there are limits to what any government can reasonably achieve and the trade-offs involved. These include the needs of business and universities versus the public desire for greater control. As we’ve noted before, leaving the EU would not necessarily lead to reduced migration either, since the extent of any new UK-EU trade relationship could well depend on continuing to accept the rules on free movement.
As I’ve said, EU free movement is by definition difficult to control. But it is far more complicated than that. The UK has been experiencing high levels of immigration since the late 1990s, which has predominantly come from outside of the EU. These people’s ties with their countries of origin are going to continue to drive immigration to the UK in one way or another. In addition, the UK economy is growing at a pace at which many of our neighbours are not, unemployment is lower and many businesses complain about a lack of skills. The first two are things we shouldn’t complain about, while the latter should prompt a much wider discussion about the education of British youngsters (which, to be fair to the Government, it has started).
But the blunt immigration target does nothing to meet the challenges around skills, public services, housing, and integration and regularly fails the one objective it might have served: to reassure the public. It should therefore be dropped.