Back in 2010, virtually every economist and expert working on migration issues – inside or outside government – warned the prime minister that his target of reducing net immigration to the “tens of thousands” was fatally flawed. It could only be achieved by truly terrible policy – either inadvertently, by a prolonged recession that reduced the attractiveness of the UK to foreign workers, or deliberately, by economically damaging restrictions on migration. Nevertheless the government did its best to try the latter, by sharply reducing the number of skilled workers and students. Published analysis from the Treasury itself estimated that the former alone would knock about £4bn off GDP over the course of the parliament.
So Steve Hilton’s claim, in Tuesday’s Daily Mail , that the prime minister was told in 2012 that his pledge was undeliverable as long as the UK remained within the European Union – and hence remained committed to free movement of workers – rather misses the point. Even outside the EU the target would remain an albatross around the neck of the government, both in theory and practice. It’s true that we’d have much more control over EU migration. But with emigration uncontrolled, UK citizens free to come and go, no limits on students and only limited levers over asylum and family migration, even a new “Australian-style points system” for skilled migrants would only control a fairly small proportion of migration flows. Ironically, the best chance of hitting the target would be a nasty Brexit-induced recession.
More broadly, the concept of a fixed target for net immigration is much better suited to a centrally planned economy than to an open, globally oriented trading nation. It is particularly amusing to see self-styled advocates of free markets and deregulation in the Conservative party (on both sides of the Brexit debate) explain that when it comes to people what they really want is more regulation combined with a hefty dose of central planning.
The fixation on numbers is particularly damaging when it comes to the labour market. For the past decade, we’ve been deluged with headlines about migrants taking most of the “new jobs” in the UK – pure fiction. In fact, while work-related migration to the UK is running at about 300,000 annually, about 6 million people take up a “new job” in the UK every year. No more than one in five of them was born abroad (and many of those will have been here for some time). Similarly with the NHS, a recent Nuffield Trust report showed new migration had little or nothing to do with pressures on the NHS.
So where next? The bad news is that neither side has exactly distinguished themselves in the referendum debate. The prime minister’s foolish pledge has destroyed his credibility on this issue, while hardly anyone in the remain camp has been prepared to make the positive case for free movement. On the leave side, there has been toxic rhetoric from some, while more mainstream figures like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are transparently trying to have it both ways, by promising simultaneously to increase and reduce non-EU migration.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that the referendum, whichever way it goes, offers an opportunity for a fundamental reset of immigration policy. If we vote to stay in, we will have done so in full knowledge that staying entails a commitment to free movement of workers in the EU, both in principle and
practice, and the resulting migration flows; and implicitly we will have rejected the “tens of thousands” target as a sensible basis for policy. Equally, if we vote to leave, we will have rejected that, and we can indeed “take control” of migration policy. Either way, a new policy framework is urgently required.
What should that be based on? In or out, two key principles would help. First, restrictions on migration should be based on a bottom-up, not a top-down approach. That is, we should work out which types of migration we want to control and how, and work out what that means for rules and numbers, not the other way around. Second, the government needs to take action to address legitimate public concerns, particularly around pressure on services at a local level. The earlier migration impact fund was both underfunded and under-publicised; a new one should be transparent and quasi-automatic, channelling funds to the NHS, schools and councils at a local level, based on timely local data on the scale of migration.
I have no illusions that these actions would solve the immigration “problem” in British politics any time soon. But they might restore both a measure of rational debate and a sense that politicians were actually saying what they meant, and doing what they said – both of which have been absent up to now.
Source : The Guardian