New research confirms the government’s net migration target is unsustainable

Arbitrary targets to reduce migration are unlikely to work, argues Sarah Mulley of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

This week saw the publication of two important pieces of analysis of the UK’s migration system, both of which are significant for the government’s much-vaunted net migration target.

The first report, published by the home office, traces the progress of migrants through the immigration system in order to measure how many people in different immigration categories remain in the UK after 5 years, or settle permanently.

For all the talk of an immigration system in crisis, the results of the study show outcomes broadly consistent with policy.

A high proportion of those entering on routes designed to allow permanent settlement remain legally in the UK after 5 years or achieve permanent settlement in this time:

61% of those who entered the UK on family visas in 2006 had achieved permanent settlement 5 years later, with an additional 5% having on-going leave to remain.

29% of those who entered the UK on skilled worker visas in 2006 had achieved permanent settlement 5 years later, with an additional 11% having on-going leave to remain.

In contrast, only a small proportion of those entering on routes not designed to lead to settlement remain legally in the UK after 5 years or achieve permanent settlement in this time:

Only 2% of those who entered the UK on temporary work visas in 2006 had achieved permanent settlement 5 years later, with an additional 7% having on-going leave to remain.

Only 1% of those who entered the UK on student visas in 2006 had achieved permanent settlement 5 years later, with an additional 17% having on-going leave to remain.

While the study cannot tell us anything about those who stay in the UK after their visas expire, it does suggest that, broadly speaking, the system is delivering what it is designed to do. (This is not to deny the serious problems of administration which continue to plague UKBA).

More importantly though, this study is a reminder of how difficult the government is going to find it to reduce net migration (the difference between immigration and emigration) in a sustainable way.

Because a large proportion of migration to the UK is temporary, very large cuts to immigration are needed to achieve even modest reductions in net migration.

For example, if only 18% of student migrants are still in the UK after 5 years, the government needs to issue 5556 fewer student visas in order to reduce net migration by 1000.

If only 40% of skilled workers are still in the UK after 5 years, then the government needs to issue 2500 fewer skilled worker visas in order to reduce net migration by 1000.

Consider that the latest figures show net migration of 183,000 as compared to a target of less than 100,000 and it becomes apparent that drastic cuts to non-EU migration would be needed for the government’s target to be sustained.

The government can achieve short term reductions in net migration by cutting immigration now, which might be enough for ministers to claim success in a general election campaign, but the effects on net migration will be short-lived, and the economic consequences serious.

The second report, published today by the independent Migration Advisory Council (MAC), points to a more sustainable way to reduce migration in the longer term.

The report recommends that more jobs be removed from the ‘shortage list’ that allows some employers easier access to skilled workers from overseas.

The MAC are clear that it is long-term investment in training and workforce development that has reduced the number of jobs in the UK suffering systemic skill shortages.

Changes to the shortage list are insignificant in terms of overall migration flows, but the message of the MAC report should be taken to heart by government and policymakers.

Migration patterns sometimes show up wider economic challenges (skills shortages, poor quality jobs) – an arbitrary target to reduce net migration will do nothing to tackle them, so policymakers must look elsewhere for long-term answers.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.