Is the Government answering the wrong question on immigration?

Gordon Brown entered the controversial debate on immigration today. His speech was full of policy detail but lacked an effective political narrative.

Gordon Brown entered the controversial debate on immigration today, with a speech full of policy detail, but the Government still lacks an effective political narrative.

As the Prime Minister was at pains to point out, net migration to the UK is already falling sharply – largely as a consequence of changing economic conditions and the tailing off of the one-off surge in immigration which the UK experienced after EU enlargement in 2004. But the Government has taken important steps to gain control of migration, and Gordon Brown was right today to highlight the importance of initiatives such as e-borders.

He was also keen to emphasise changes to tighten up the ‘Points-Based System’ which now governs migration from outside the EU for work or study in the UK.  Most of the changes that the Prime Minister announced today simply represent the Government accepting the expert advice of the Migration Advisory Committee, which conducts periodic reviews of the labour market to decide which jobs should remain on the ‘shortage list’ that determines which jobs can be most easily filled from outside the UK.  But the shortage list is only a small part of the Points-Based System, which itself determines only a small proportion of total immigration to the UK.

In fact, there wasn’t much new policy in Gordon Brown’s speech – minor tweaks to a system which has been put in place over a number of years.  This was a political intervention, not a policy one, but it was a political intervention based on a narrative that has been tried and found wanting by a succession of ministers in the last decade.

The public are worried about immigration, and they want to feel confident that the government is in control of the system.  Fair enough.  But being in control does not mean driving numbers down at any cost.  A policy approach which equates control with ‘toughness’ risks sacrificing many of the benefits that the UK currently receives from migration.

The Government has already put in place much of the architecture that is needed to achieve control, which should allow the UK to continue to reap the benefits of migration in the future as it has in the past.  But this message was weakened today by the continual drive to announce (mostly minor) ways of ‘tightening’ the immigration system.  When ministers suggest the need to ‘get tough’ on migration, they fail to convince the public that they are in control, and often actually undermine public confidence in a system which they have worked hard to improve.

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