Why we need to scrap the net migration target

There are no easy answers to the questions immigration throws up, so politicians should stop making empty promises

 

The quarterly migration statistics were released today, showing that net migration has risen to historically high levels. It is not since the year to June 2005 that it has been so high. In the year to September 2014, an estimated 624,000 long-term migrants arrived in the UK and 327,000 emigrants left.

This leaves an estimate of net migration at 298,000 people. It was 320,000 people in the year to June 2005. Crucially, net migration is now far above the ‘tens of thousands’ promise that the Conservatives made in 2010.

Emigration from the UK has been fairly constant since 2012. It is immigration that has increased and this is why net migration has increased. Over the last year, there has been an increase in EU and non-EU migration to the UK. In the year to September 2014, EU immigration increased by 43,000 over the previous year, and non-EU immigration by 49,000.

Of EU migrants arriving in the UK in the year to September 2015, an estimated 51 per cent were from the ‘EU 15’ – those who were members of the EU before May 2004.

A further 31 per cent were from the ‘EU 8’ – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and the Baltic States. Some 15 per cent of EU migrants arriving in the year to September 2014 were from Bulgaria and Romania.

While all these categories of EU migration increased over the last year, the biggest increase was in Bulgarian and Romanian migration, up 54 per cent over the previous year. There was no statistically significant increase in migration from the EU8 states of eastern and central Europe – the 4,000 real increase may be a consequence of chance alone or sampling errors in the International Passenger Survey, the controversial statistical tool used to estimate net migration.

The government’s reaction to the net migration statistics has been to look contrite. The junior minister for immigration, James Brokenshire, has been wheeled out to explain that the trends were ‘disappointing’.

But Labour’s response was also no more credible. In response to the net migration figures, Yvette Cooper has promised a crackdown on undocumented migration and employment agencies who exploit EU migrants. While these may be valid policy objectives, there is little evidence to suggest that such moves will significantly reduce net migration.

There are a number of ways that governments can reduce undocumented migration. These include interventions in the country of origin and countries of transition – so-called ‘upstream’ measures, enhanced border controls, ‘deterrence’ measures in the UK such as employer sanctions, immigration raids, voluntary departures and amnesties and regularisation. All these measures are relatively expensive to deliver and likely to have quite small impacts on net migration.

The statistics on are contested, but it is a minority of EU migrants who are recruited by or work for employment agencies. It is important to remember that most of them operate above the radar and may also recruit or employ British workers.

We may not like their practices, but as long as they obey the law and pay the National Minimum Wage, there is little that a government could do to crackdown on them further. There is also little evidence to suggest that any crackdown would significantly reduce net migration.

So Labour’s response, too, is an example of tough talk and over-promising – and as such can only act to reduce the public’s trust in the ability of politicians to deliver on immigration policy. It has only been UKIP who has been able to advance a coherent argument – leave the EU and we’ll gain control of our borders.

The main political parties have dug themselves into a hole. In such circumstances, it might be an idea to stop digging. We need to scrap the net migration target and accept that the current levels of migration are inevitable in the short–term, and a feature of a successful economy.

We need to focus on the things that matter, removing foreign criminals, integration and building good community relations. And through the EU and foreign policy levers, we need to support economic development in Bulgaria and Romania to limit the push factors that contribute to migration.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and writes on migration and family policy

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