Reducing Immigration: Caps, limits and the perils of political targets
The Government’s much-heralded cap on skilled immigration takes effect today. It will limit the number of skilled migrants from outside the EU allowed to come to the UK to work, although there are some substantial exemptions, including workers transferred within multinational companies and the very highly paid.
The cap is the most high profile element of a package of policies to meet the Conservative Party’s target of reducing net immigration to the UK to ‘tens rather than hundreds of thousands’. At the moment, net immigration to the UK is around 200,000 a year. This target may seem to make political sense, given public concerns about immigration, but it is leading to bad policy, and may yet create a political headache for the Government as well.
The target is focused on an esoteric measure – net migration is the surplus of immigration over emigration, but this means very little to the public. For example, while net immigration was 226,000 in the year to June 2010, emigration was 346,000, so (gross) immigration was 572,000. To translate this into something approximating the experiences of ordinary people, think about 57 new migrants moving to a community and 35 leaving. The net impact on the local population is relatively small, but it represents a lot of coming and going. Net migration could be zero and people might still be very worried about immigration, for example if a million people came to the UK while a million others left.
The Government has relatively little control over total net migration. They can do nothing about British people coming and going, and little about people coming from inside the EU. Add to this the fact that net migration statistics are notoriously unreliable, and it becomes clear that even with significant policy changes, the Government can’t be sure of meeting its target.
This means that the areas of the immigration system where the government does have control – basically non-asylum migration from outside the EU – have to carry the burden of meeting the net migration target, even if they aren’t the parts of the system that cause public or Government concerns.
The cap on skilled immigration is an example of how the target is leading to bad policy. It will keep out the highly-skilled migrants who contribute most to the UK economy and to the public purse: the people that the public aren’t especially worried about. Although the cap introduced today will have relatively modest impacts on numbers, the Migration Advisory Committee estimates that skilled immigration for work may have to be cut by up to 80% by the end of this Parliament in order to meet the Government’s target.
The net migration target is also producing some very strange incentives for policy changes which deliver reductions in the official migration statistics, but don’t actually reduce immigration, or deal with the substantive public concerns which the Government claims to be responding to. So, for example, people have to come to the UK for more than 12 months to officially count as ‘migrants’. Because the Government is so keen to reduce the official measures of net migration in order to meet their target, we now see new provisions being made for 11 month visas for English language students and some of those being transferred to the UK within multinational companies.
These ‘11 month’ migrants may disappear from the migration statistics, but they will still be in the UK. Indeed, shorter-term migration could also make challenges like integration and community cohesion more difficult.
So although the target of Immigration Minister Damian Green (pictured) seems to respond to public concerns, in practice it is leading to bad policy which may actually cause more concern in the long run. By focusing on numbers and statistics, the Government is actually avoiding the honest engagement with the public that is so desperately needed.
All this illustrates the wider importance of setting the right objectives – attention grabbing commitments may seem like a good idea during an election campaign, but they often sit awkwardly with the realities of public policy and can ultimately backfire. The Government would be wise to start thinking about ways it can beat a dignified retreat from this particular target and about alternative measures of success for immigration policy.
Picture: PATagged in: Damian Green, government, immigration
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