So, for the third General Election in a row, the Conservatives have decided to retain the target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands in their manifesto. When I heard the news this week about the decision to retain the net migration target, all I could think was, why though?
Despite failing comprehensively to achieve this in either of the last two parliaments and regardless of the voices from all sides of the electoral spectrum calling for it to be dropped, Theresa May will not be swayed. To those of us who have seen Theresa May’s approach to immigration as Home Secretary and PM, this is unsurprising. A government who baulks at a few hundred unaccompanied refugee children is unlikely to suddenly embrace a realistic immigration policy which accepts that the economy, families and our commitment to human rights cannot be restricted to an arbitrary numerical target.
The foolhardiness of this decision, particularly at a time when businesses are increasingly anxious about accessing the skilled workers they need in a post-Brexit Britain, can be illustrated with a quick look at the breakdown of the categories of non-EEA migrants coming to the UK.
In 2016, there were 207,200 study related visas granted, excluding short-term study visas. There have long been calls to exclude students from the net migration figures as student migrants generally are only seeking to come to the UK on a temporary basis and as a general rule, the student visa category does not lead to settlement in the UK. If students remain part of the net migration figures however, then surely further restrictions on students coming to the UK are on the horizon as it is impossible to achieve this target otherwise. Will that benefit the UK? Will reducing the ability of UK universities to capitalise on wealthy international students help them retain their status as some of the top educational establishments in the world? Is this a smart move at a time when the higher education sector already has to deal with the uncertainty of Brexit and what that means for their funding going forward? And if we do drastically cut the number of international students, who will plug this funding gap? Will the British student whose tuition fees have to rise to compensate really be grateful that at least net migration is down? No, of course they won’t. Cutting student migration simply to present more politically popular numbers is harmful to the UK and shows why the net migration target must be dropped.
There were 163,882 work related visas issued in 2016, although more than 70,000 of these were for migrants who would not be able to settle in the UK on the basis of their visa status and whose leave in the UK would be capped at anywhere from six months to five years. Although the overall number of sponsored skilled workers remained largely unchanged from 2015, there was an increase in the number of workers in the human health and social work activities sector, likely reflecting the recognition of nurses as a shortage occupation. Even with these increased numbers the Public Accounts Committee warned in 2016 that the NHS in England was 50,000 people short of front-line staff, representing 6% of the workforce. This is not likely to improve as recruitment from the EU, which currently provides an estimated 5% of the NHS workforce (including 10% of doctors), is down following the decision in last year’s referendum. As well as critical skill gaps across the economy and a lack of interest in low skilled jobs (Pret-a-Manger revealed earlier this year that only 1 in 50 job applications comes from a British national) we have an aging population and funding shortages for their social care, never mind potential issues funding pensions and healthcare in the years to come. We are consistently told that we must get immigration down to ‘sustainable’ levels and that means the tens of thousands, in part due to the impact on public services. However, nowhere in this conversation do we address the fact that migrants are more likely to be net contributors to the economy, therefore playing a key role in actually funding these vital public services. Instead of addressing the question of investment in public services, which have been subject to significant cuts in recent years, the politically expedient decision has been taken to decry migration and call for numerical cuts which do not address the needs which immigration seeks to meet. In the words of Stephen Martin of the Institute of Directors in response to the decision to maintain the target, “A target is a poor substitute for a proper immigration policy.”
There were 38,119 visas issued to family members of British or settled persons in 2016. Despite this, a JCWI report in 2015 showed that thousands of families face separation, including 15,000 British Citizen children due to the Immigration Rules introduced in July 2012 which made it much more difficult for families to meet the requirements for visas in the UK. The 2012 rule changes were seen by many as a way to reduce net migration. The previous rules already required applicants to satisfy a maintenance requirement but allowed more flexibility in how this was done. The strict, heavy handed and often nonsensical way in which the new rules worked often seemed like a deterrent rather than aimed at preventing reliance on public funds. Further cuts to migration of family members cannot be a just way to cut the numbers but seems inevitable if the target will not be abandoned.
In response to this ‘Why though’ question earlier this week, on her decision to retain the target, Theresa May said it was important to think why a target was needed and that the reason was due to the impact net migration has on people and on public services. She said that she wants to get it down to sustainable levels. That means tens of thousands.
I’m sorry Theresa May but that does not answer the question. Immigration is crucial to our economy, to the funding and functioning of our public services, to our highly respected education sector and to the stability and wellbeing of thousands of families in the UK. Our immigration policy should be designed to meet these needs rather than to meet a random number. Despite refusing to drop the target, Theresa May was coy as to whether it could actually be met by 2022. The net migration target, I would suggest, is neither realistic nor desirable.
It is time politicians spent less time pandering to a false narrative on immigration, and showed the courage to actually ask and seek to realistically answer the question ‘Why though?’ when crafting immigration policy.