For months, years even, a row has been brewing at the heart of government.
It’s not about air strikes in Syria or tax credit reforms. It’s not about devolution or departmental spending cuts. It’s about immigration.
Specifically, it concerns the question of whether international students should be counted in the official net migration figures. The issue is nudged back and forth between Downing St and the Home Office like a never-ending game of chess.
George Osborne and Theresa May take different views, with the home secretary often having her plans for a clampdown on international students spiked by the chancellor.
Yesterday, the division between these two great offices of state was revealed by questions from Andrew Tyrie, chair of the powerful Treasury Select Committee.
Tyrie probed the chancellor:
The home secretary has been planning to impose tougher language requirements for international students and ban dependents from working here, but the Autumn Statement appears to have said… that these plans won’t go ahead? I assume therefore that you’ve been active in quashing these proposals of the home secretary?
Osborne’s response was diplomatic, but telling: such proposals are “not government policy”. The grilling continued with a discussion on the distinction between permanent migrants (which Osborne suggested the public is concerned about) and the temporary migration of students who come here to study from abroad.
Osborne observed that this second category of migration is “a good thing for the UK”.
He’s certainly right about that. Indeed, it would be good to hear members of the government articulate this view more often.
Tyrie wasn’t quite able to get Osborne to admit that including student migrants in the overall immigration figure is a bad idea, but there was no sign of enthusiasm for the measure in the chancellor’s answer.
Indeed, we learned that
there is a lively debate in all circles about how this number is best calculated in the UK.
For now, that lively debate seems confined to conversations between the chancellor and the home secretary, but the country would be better served if it were discussed more openly. Following the advice of the Institute of Directors, which has called for a Comprehensive Immigration Review, would be a practical and positive first step.