The Conservatives' search for coherence on immigration policy goes on

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The Conservatives' search for coherence on immigration policy goes on

Posted on: 14th November 2019
Harvey Redgrave
Senior Policy Advisor, Home Affairs

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has promised that immigration overall will fall if the Conservatives win the general election. While it is obvious that this opens up a clear dividing line with Labour during the campaign, who she claims of favouring “open borders”, Patel’s pledge is likely to prove bad policy and bad politics.

Let’s start with the policy. It is welcome that the government appears to be all set to scrap the discredited net migration target (to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands). But Patel’s aspiration is arguably equally meaningless. It makes the same mistake the Conservatives have been making since 2010: pretending that all types of immigration are the same, with the same impact. The reality is that there are different types of immigration - and they each require a different public policy approach. There is economic migration, which can be broken down into high skilled and low skilled migration. There is migration for study. There is family-based migration. And there are asylum seekers and refugees. A blanket aspiration to reduce all of these different strands doesn’t make any sense. Imagine the Conservatives win the election and Britain leaves the EU as promised: should we celebrate if the government hits its aspiration to reduce immigration by reducing the number of foreign students? Or reducing the number of high skilled migrants coming to work? Of course not.

An aspiration which lumps all types of migration together is also contrary to the Conservatives’ stated policy approach of a ‘points based system’. Points based systems are generally used to ensure greater selectivity in immigration - allowing countries to target migrants with particular skills or with a higher propensity to integrate with the host population. They have generally been used in countries that have wanted to increase immigration, rather than reduce it. It is not clear that such a policy is compatible with an aspiration to see “overall immigration fall”.

The public aren’t stupid: they recognise the difference between the various types of immigration and are perfectly open to a pragmatic stance which takes a differentiated approach to economic migration, as we argued in our report last year.

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Rather than setting out vague and ill defined aspirations on immigration to make a headline, it would be better if political parties sought to re-establish public trust on immigration.

What about the politics? It is telling that when the Home Office minister, Victoria Atkins, was asked about this last week she couldn’t say whether the government wanted immigration to go up or down. It reveals an inherent contradiction at the heart of the government’s approach: on the one hand, ministers want to reassure business (not to mention worried remain-inclined voters) that Brexit will not lead to Britain becoming a more inward-focused, less welcoming and culturally narrower country. On the other hand, it would seem perverse if one of the main effects of Brexit wasn’t to reduce immigration given this was a central feature of the 2016 referendum campaign and is widely recognised as a major driver of why people voted leave. Patel’s announcement today makes it clear which side of that divide the Conservatives have decided to come down on. There are two problems: 

First, credibility. For all its flaws, the net migration target was at least precise. It enabled people to envisage what success would look like and could be measured. Today’s aspiration is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and leaves basic questions unanswered. By how much will immigration fall? For how long? There is a risk that, for voters concerned about immigration, this won’t pass the test of plausibility, while signalling to more liberal voters that the Conservatives are doubling down on an anti-immigration position. 

The second problem is that while today’s announcement potentially opens up a useful dividing line with Labour in the short term, it locks the government into a policy direction that might prove to be unhelpful in the longer term. One of the reasons the net migration target was so damaging is that it forced government into perverse policy positions, such as restricting the flow of foreign students and capping high skilled migration in order to hit an arbitrary target. This risks repeating that mistake. 

Of course, the Home Secretary may say this is simply a forecast of what is likely to happen under a Conservative government, rather than an aspiration. Modelling by Jonathan Portes suggests that the net effect of ending free movement, post-Brexit, will be to reduce overall immigration by about 35,000 a year. However this is hardly cause for celebration in and of itself. Indeed one of the ironies of the Conservative position is that lower migration is one indicator of a poorer performing economy, following Britain’s departure from the EU (since fewer migrants will seek to come here since Britain will be a less attractive proposition.) 

Rather than setting out vague and ill defined aspirations on immigration to make a headline, it would be better if political parties sought to re-establish public trust on immigration (which has been severely undermined as a result of the government’s consistent failure to hit its net migration pledge) by setting out an achievable plan. Doing so is not just good policy, it is good politics

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