Coalition should abandon immigration cap or redefine the target

The Home Affairs Committee’s Immigration Cap report sets out some striking findings about the minimal impact the cap will have in achieving the coalition government’s policy objective of reducing net migration.

Alice Sachrajda is a researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr)

The Home Affairs Committee’s Immigration Cap report sets out some striking findings about the minimal impact the cap will have in achieving the coalition government’s policy objective of reducing net migration.

The report is unequivocal in its conclusion that:

“… the proposed cap – unless it is set close to 100% – will have little significant impact on overall immigration levels.”

Currently, net migration is around 196,000 but the Tories hope to reduce this by at least half, to the ‘tens of thousands’. The interim cap, by contrast, is cutting immigration by only around 1 per cent.

Given that the cap is likely to be wholly ineffective, the committee’s report looks at alternative ways of reducing net migration. It pinpoints three main areas: Reducing student immigration; restricting those joining family members in the UK; and working to prevent long term rights to settlement. On closer inspection, however, none of these alternatives are really workable – and this is acknowledged to some extent by the committee.

In a somewhat contradictory approach, the committee states that other immigration routes, such as international students, will have to be examined, but then swiftly follows up by stressing the “continuing importance of international students to UK educational institutions and the UK economy”.

Keith Vaz, the chair of the committee, says:

“We were particularly concerned about the potential effect on international students. Our evidence underlined their crucial importance to the cultural and intellectual life, as well as finances, of UK educational institutions.

“The government should direct its efforts to tackling those who abuse the system – bogus colleges and visa overstayers – rather than penalising legitimate students.”

Targeting those joining family members in the UK is also unlikely to be a viable alternative.

According to the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA), such an approach could provoke legal challenges under the Human Rights Act which protect the rights to respect for family and private life, and to marry and found a family without discrimination. ILPA states that treating migrants differently, for example by rewarding the migrant with no dependants with extra points, could engage the European Convention of Human Rights.

Preventing long term rights to settlement was also raised as an alternative. This would involve changing the duration of time immigrants are able to stay in the country, such as by weakening the link between work and settlement. But Professor David Metcalf, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, explains that:

“… any such changes, even if introduced now, would not take effect until 2013–14.”

The committee’s report acknowledges that in order to make an immediate impact on the government’s policy objective then targeting the inflow is key. But this will not be a favourable option for the coalition. The policy of a cap was introduced as an election promise and so a more immediate outcome will be needed if the government is going to save face politically.

Ippr accepts that the government is under pressure to reduce net migration after years of it being high. But it is essential when managing migration that the benefits of migration are not lost. Management and control are best achieved through the points-based system which can be flexible enough to meet the needs of the economy without being restricted by unrealistic, arbitrary limits.

It is now abundantly clear that achieving its policy objective of drastically cutting net migration is going to be an uphill struggle for the government. The coalition faces an unpalatable choice between introducing an ineffective policy that it knows is damaging to the economy and public services, or by finding a way to abandon or redefine the target.

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