Cam’s immigration cap: do the numbers stack up?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg clashed on immigration in last night's debate. Left Foot Forward asks how could Cameron's immigration cap work in practice.

Immigration proved to be an emotive issue in last night’s leaders’ debate, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg clashing on immigration caps (Conservative policy) and amnesties (Liberal Democrat policy). I wrote here yesterday about the Liberal Democrats’ immigration policies, so today it seems appropriate to analyse the Conservatives’ policy of capping immigration.

Mr Clegg was keen to emphasise last night that a cap on immigration wouldn’t deliver what the Conservatives are promising – because it could only apply to migrants from outside the EU. He got his stats wrong, but the point stands. In fact, a cap could have a limited impact even on migration from outside the EU. A recent ippr report examined the numbers in some detail.

Although the Conservatives have not set out the level at which an immigration cap might be set, they have talked about reducing annual net immigration below 100,000 (“tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands“), and have also intimated their support for calls for annual net immigration to be reduced to around 40,000. A cap of 100,000 could be delivered if British net emigration continues at a significant rate and net immigration from the EU 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 trajectories to be followed, such as the implementation of plans to further restrict student immigration.

Instigating these policies would be challenging, and a cap at this level 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 – they are either not the groups that those who support a cap seem to be worried about (for example highly-skilled migrant workers); are flows that are economically important to the UK (for example students and skilled migrant workers); or are flows that are difficult to limit (for example family formation or reunion).

A cap of 40,000 looks impossible to achieve from the UK’s current position without threatening both economic performance and the rights of British nationals and settled migrants to be with their families. The Conservatives’ immigration cap policy is pretty meaningless until they set out the level at which the cap would be set, and caps set at the kind of levels which they are implicitly promising would be impossible to deliver without causing the UK significant economic harm.

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