The net migration target is not just useless, its damaging

The government can have no control over some of the factors that affect net migration. So why are they continuing to waste time with it?


The latest quarterly migration statistics were released today. They show that net migration stands at 330,000 in the year to March 2015, despite a Conservative pledge to reduce it to the tens of thousands by 2015. The government’s response has been to ignore this failure and stick to the target. We have a home secretary with her head in the sand.

Today’s quarterly migration statistics are in two parts. There is a release of administrative data from the Home Office, on work visas, student and family migration, asylum applications, extensions of stay and removals. Alongside this, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes demographic data on immigration and emigration trends, including net migration data.

Net migration measures the numbers of long-term arrivals to the UK, minus long-term emigrants. Net migration was negative during most of the 1970s, meaning more people left the UK every year than arrived as migrants. The lowest it has been in recent years was 129,000 in 2008.  

Because of the Tory pledge to reduce net migration to under 100,000, it has become the one statistic that has come to symbolise the success or failure of migration policy. Yet the coalition and government have come nowhere near achieving their target. Net migration in the year to March 2012 was 184,000. It was 175,000 in the year to March 2013 and 236,000 in the year to March 2014.

This year it hit a record high, with 330,000 more migrants arriving than leaving in the year to March 2015. The government cannot achieve its target, because it has little control of many of the migration flows that impact on net migration.

Rates of British and non-British emigration affect net migration; if fewer people leave, then net migration is likely to go up. Short of adopting North Korea-style policies, the government cannot affect emigration rates.

The return of British citizens is another migration flow that impacts on net migration. In the year to March 2015 with 83,000 British nationals re-migrated to the UK, which they have every right to do.

Since 2004, the largest group of new immigrants have been non-British EU nationals and they are the main reason that net migration has increased. At present, a 2004 treaty gives anyone with EEA worker status the right to live and work in another EU country. This right applies equally to Brits living and working in other EU countries as it does to EU migrants coming to the UK.

Renegotiating the 2004 treaty, as many Conservative MPs want to, or withdrawing from the EU are the only two policy measures that can impact on this aspect of net migration. Both would likely have negative impact on millions of British citizens living elsewhere in the EU.

Asylum applications affect net migration, although in recent years they have had small impact, as asylum numbers are low, compared with the early years of this century. In the 12 months to June 2015 some 25,771 asylum applications were lodged in the UK, with the largest group being Eritreans. Domestic and international law means that asylum seekers who are on UK territory have the right to make an application and that our country has to give sanctuary to refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution.

Our government has no intention of withdrawing from the 1951 UN Refugee Convention – it would become an international pariah if it did so. There is thus little scope for reducing the small number of refugees who come to the UK.

Non-EU nationals can migrate to the UK to join immediate family, as students or with work visas. These flows all impact on net migration. Family migration numbers remain fairly constant at 35,245 visas granted in 12 months to June 2015. This is despite 2012 policy changes that require a UK-based spouse or fiancé(e) to earn more than £18,600 per year (to be maintained over 12 months) to bring a partner to the UK. The Conservatives introduced a ‘family test’ for all new government policy and pride themselves in upholding family values. Therefore there is little political will to further tighten up on family migration.

Most of our universities are dependent on income from non-EU students, whose fees often cross-subsidise facilities for British undergraduates. There were 216,769 study visas granted in the year to June 2015, mostly for university students. But as the vast majority of overseas students return home at the end of their courses, student migration flows have a small long-term impact on net migration.

Some 168,544 work visas were granted in the year to June 2015, a slight increase. Work visa migration is a flow that the government can most control. Indeed, the government has prioritised work visas as a way of reducing net migration. Changes to Tier One work visas for highly-skilled migrants were introduced in 2012, effectively shutting this route down apart from a small number of wealthy investors and those with ‘exceptional talent in sciences and the arts’.

The last government also introduced restrictions to Tier Two schemes for skilled workers with a job offer or those filling gaps in the UK labour market. There is now an annual quota of 20,700 Tier Two visas, which is split into monthly limits. The quota for June 2015 was 1,650 visas which was reached just 11 days into the month.

Those with work visas come to take up jobs in the NHS, in research, engineering, finance, IT and in many other sectors essential to the prosperity of this country. There is almost unanimous opposition to the government’s work visa changes, including from many Conservative business leaders. Yet the government has ploughed on regardless. All of us lose out if the UK cannot recruit highly-skilled migrants – just think about your last visit to a hospital. This essential group of migrants have been sacrificed to try and achieve the unachievable – the net migration target.

Instead we need immigration policy to focus on issues that matter: conditions at Calais, the global refugee crisis, undocumented migration and the integration of new communities. The net migration target is damaging and a distraction from these issues and should be scrapped.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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