Immigration: The limits to limits

Only the Tories have promised to cap immigration levels; they've been reluctant to specify the details, so it’s unclear which flows they'd cap, or their level.

Facing high levels of public concern about migration, and worried about the continued threat posed by extremists like the BNP, all three main parties are keen to emphasise they are “tough on immigration”. But only the Conservatives have promised to cap immigration levels.  They have been reluctant to specify the details, so it’s not clear which immigration flows they would cap, or at what level.

David Cameron has said that he would like to see “net immigration in the tens of thousands rather than … hundreds of thousands”, and the Conservatives have also intimated their support for calls for annual net immigration to be reduced to around 40,000. The ippr has produced a briefing paper which considers the implications of an immigration cap set at 100,000 or 40,0000.

We show that a cap of 100,000 could be delivered if British net emigration continues at a significant rate and net immigration from the European Union settles down at something close to current levels. However, delivering net immigration of 100,000 (which would surely not satisfy those who want to see a drastic reduction in immigration) would also require current policy plans to be followed through, such as the implementation of plans to further restrict student immigration.

Instigating these policies would be challenging enough, and a cap of 100,000 would still be very difficult to achieve if improvements in the economy lead to increases in work-related migration to pre-recession levels.

A cap of 40,000 could only be met with drastic changes to policy. Given that EU migration is outside the control of government, and asylum/refugee migration is governed by international conventions, very significant reductions in migration to the UK for work and study, and restrictions on family formation/reunion, would be required.  Limiting these immigration flows is not straightforward – a cap of 40,000 looks impossible to achieve from the position that the UK is currently in without threatening both economic performance and the rights of British nationals and settled migrants to be with their families.

Elevating the reduction of immigration to the status of a policy objective in its own right (which a cap would do) begs the question of what the policy problem to be solved is.  If it’s population growth, an immigration cap would only make sense as part of a wider population policy, and presumably the real objective would then be to reduce population growth, rather than immigration.  If the concern is about public services, then it matters much less how many migrants come to the UK than how many go to the South East of England, or London, or Barking, or the catchment area of a particular school.  A national cap with nothing to say about regional population distribution would not solve this problem.

Even for those who are, for whatever reason, inclined to make the reduction of net immigration to the UK an objective of policy, it would make more sense to think about a target than a cap. Rather than limiting immigration numbers by fiat in certain categories, a target-based approach would allow a government to ‘raise or lower the bar’ in order to achieve a certain (desirable or promised) level of net immigration. Given that migration happens in series throughout the year, it is hard to see how fixed caps on particular migration flows would work in practice. If, for example, certain visas were limited annually, what would happen if the limits were met in October, or June?

A fixed cap on net immigration to the UK seems unworkable.  As I’ve suggested on Left Foot Forward before, it may also prove to be a political ‘own goal’.  The public want government to be in control of migration and to be honest with them about the numbers. But what often gives people the impression that immigration is out of control is politicians making promises to ‘clamp down’ that they then can’t deliver.  The immigration cap risks becoming one such promise unless the Conservatives can put forward a clear plan for how they would deliver it in practice.

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