The coalition’s immigration policy has now lost all credibility

Allister Heath

THERE are two camps on migration. The first, to which the vast majority of the public belongs, believes that immigration into the UK is much too high. The second, much smaller group, is more liberal on this issue.

I’m in the pro-migration camp: I think that allowing people to move as they choose is a great freedom and an important restraint on authoritarian governments. People have more power, bossy bureaucrats less and economies do better. Of course, some immigrants come here for the wrong reasons, and welfare tourism or extremism should not be tolerated.

I know many readers disagree with me on migration. But regardless of what side you take, one thing is clear: the coalition’s policies aren’t working.

The government’s aim to reduce net migration to the low tens of thousands was always a bad joke. It’s a complete impossibility, both logically and practically, given that the coalition wants to remain part of the EU.

A non-authoritarian government – even one in complete control of migration policy – cannot possibly target net migration, a bizarre Malthusian concept deliberately designed to confuse the public.

That’s because net migration is the difference between the people who come into a country, and those who leave; it is an unachievable population growth target that, weirdly, takes no account of births and deaths.

If fewer Brits decide to emigrate, net migration can go up even if immigration goes down. Even if the government were able to control the number of foreign nationals coming in, it quite rightly cannot stop British citizens or other foreign nationals from leaving, let alone force them to do so. This is as it should be, but it demonstrates the absurdity of targeting something over which the authorities have, by definition, no control. The government also rightly cannot stop British expats from returning to the UK; so even if there were a total ban on all foreign nationals moving to the UK (which would be a deeply stupid policy) net migration could still easily be positive.

In any case, the government doesn’t actually control immigration: all EU nationals can move here. So the only tool in its arsenal is to block non-EU nationals from coming here, in the vain hope that doing so will be enough to bring down the net migration statistic. It may be that the coalition originally thought that the recession would see a collapse in immigration as job opportunities dried up, and that some EU citizens would move back to their home countries. The first flaw in that theory was the UK labour market, which performed exceptionally well; the second flaw is that wage differentials remain large between the UK and the poorer accession states; and the third flaw was that many EU economies – especially in Southern Europe – performed far worse than we ever did.

Given all of that, the coalition has had to use the limited tools in its arsenal. It has tried to limit non-EU immigration in a typically cack-handed manner which has hurt companies and damaged the education industry. But despite all of that, the policy has been a complete failure even on its own terms: net migration rose to 212,000 last year, up from 154,000 in the year ending September 2012. The number of people arriving rose to 532,000, with 60,000 more EU citizens and 25,000 fewer non-EU citizens moving here; the number of people leaving fell to 320,000.

The government needs to scrap this idiotic target. If it wants to restrict non-EU immigration, it should say so and explain why; if it wants to restrict EU immigration, it should explain how. Of course, as a supporter of a liberal migration policy, I hope in fact that it will choose to change its tune. But above all, what we really need from the coalition is honesty on migration. Its current position – promising something it cannot achieve – is a disgrace.
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