The government’s migration target seems threatened by increased immigration from the European Union. Will this happen or will the target still be within reach in 2015?
The press has already started to argue that a quarter of a million Bulgarians and Romanians will ‘head to the UK’ when travel restrictions are lifted in 2014, provoked by new estimates from Migration Watch. And the government itself didn’t look in command of the situation when Eric Pickles was interviewed recently on Sunday Politics. He appeared to suggest he already had an estimate of likely new migration levels from the two newest EU states, but also that it was so frightening he’d better not say what it was. This uncertainty prompted Conservative blogger Max Wind-Cowie to argue here that the government needs to show ‘political will’ if it wants to achieve its target to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’.
The first question to be asked is whether immigration from Bulgaria and Romania is actually likely to occur on the scale suggested by those fear-mongers, Migration Watch? For several reasons it’s inappropriate to compare the likely 2014 position with that ten years earlier when Poland and seven other countries joined the EU, which is how Migration Watch derive their estimated inflow of 50,000 new migrants per year. First, there is the obvious point that Britain is now a much less attractive place in which to find work than it was in 2004. Second, there has already been limited migration from Bulgaria and Romania since 2007, which has resulted in relatively modest numbers staying long-term (less than 50,000 and 100,000 respectively from each). Third, as the Romanian ambassador quickly pointed out, nationals from both countries have been able to go to work freely in several other EU countries which didn’t introduce tight restrictions like Britain’s. Most would-be migrants have moved already and remaining demand seems likely to be small. And finally, any estimates are bound to be highly speculative (to put it politely), since it’s most unlikely that people looking for low-skilled jobs are planning their moves twelve months ahead.
Even though Eric Pickles looked as if he’d walked into a trap when questioned by Andrew Neil, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the government is mainly focused on events that might affect its political standing between now and May 2015, and everything has to be judged in that light. When Poland and seven other countries joined the EU in May 2004, it took only a short time for people to start to arrive here to find work but it took many months longer for hard evidence of numbers to become available. In the case of Bulgaria and Romania, restrictions will be lifted in January 2014. The last migration figures before the next election are due to be published in February 2015. But they will only show migration up until June the previous year. Of course this won’t stop press speculation (and at the time of EU expansion in 2004 it was rife, stoked by then Tory leader Michael Howard, the son of Romanian immigrants). But the Conservatives may well be able to face down the issue through lack of hard data.
Does this mean they will achieve their target by May 2015, even through the use of some smoke and mirrors? One other factor in their favour is the continuing decline in student immigration, the biggest factor in the recent fall in net migration figures. This could rebound on the government (and not only because it makes no economic sense to undermine an important source of foreign earnings). It will rebound because students who don’t come here of necessity don’t leave either, so their useful contribution to outward migration will also fall, albeit with a 2-3 year delay. Again, the government may have judged things carefully though, as this rebound effect won’t be strongly evident until after May 2015.
There are still plenty of factors that could prevent net migration from dropping below the magic 100,000 target in the time available, however. One is that, as just argued, time is running out for the available figures to actually fall sufficiently, since even with the recent decline net migration was still 183,000 in the year ending March 2012. It only has just over two years to fall by almost a further 50 per cent if the target is to be evident in provisional data that will available in the run up to the election. Another factor is that – as argued by ippr in their latest annual assessment of prospects for migration – the action taken to restrict various types of immigration is still not tough enough to achieve such a sharp fall, despite the hardship being caused by the latest measures (for example) to limit family migration and the piling up of bureaucratic obstacles to the entry of non-EU workers (even highly skilled ones).
To be fair to Max Wind-Cowie, he seems to have mixed feelings about the target, and he is right to have them. As he points out, if people’s worries are about EU migrants competing for low-paid jobs, then targeting students or potential spouses of British nationals is not addressing their concerns. Furthermore, short of a fundamental and rapid realignment of policy in the EU (or more restricted ‘free movement’ rules, at least in Britain’s case), the concerns won’t be addressed anytime soon.
However, the real problem about the government’s target is that it is not an intelligent policy and is likely to fail in its objective of gaining the public’s trust. By setting numerical targets the government has begun a contest which it is extremely difficult for anyone to win. And as Wind-Cowie says, it’s in no one’s interests if politicians are discredited on this issue once again, partly because fewer people will believe any of them next time.
There is an urgent need for more credible policies on migration that might slowly regain people’s confidence. The ippr has started a debate about what these might be, Ed Miliband has tentatively started discussion about Labour policy, and bodies like British Future and the Migration Observatory have emerged to give an alternative to the views purveyed by Migration Watch. Even so, it is too soon to be optimistic about the emergence of more sensitive policies in this area, and there is still every reason to fear that things will move in the opposite direction.
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