Immigration: targeting better policy

1 April 2015

Guest blog from Ben Richards, a Researcher at the Social Market Foundation.

The row over the Conservatives’ migration target intensified in recent weeks with Theresa May suggesting she still supports David Cameron’s target to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’. This followed figures showing migration was almost three times the current target, and higher than when the Government took office. The Tory stance has provoked criticism from all sides. Labour have accused the Home Secretary of trying to repeat an ‘old trick’ on numbers; and the Liberal Democrats have attempted to distance themselves from the migration target, insisting it was never party policy.

In its recent report Making Migration Work, NIACE highlights the benefit of changing the migration target to exclude students, and to allow greater numbers of skilled workers into the UK. At the Social Market Foundation, our own recent report – Targeting Immigration – asks exactly what the rationale is for adopting a migration target at all. What is best for migration policy leading up to the election? And if we do have a target, what should it look like?

It’s clear that politicians need to address public concerns over immigration, but the challenge faced by the parties is to create a plan that shows voters their concerns are being listened to. Such a plan must be credible – both by being ambitious enough to assuage public concerns, but at the same time being achievable – and it must be consistent with other areas of Government policy.

The existing Tory migration target was an attempt to create just such a plan. But it has not been met for several reasons. The most publicised is that the UK has no control over migration from the rest of the EU, which has increased as the economy has improved. A less publicised reason – over which the Government also has no control – is a big reduction in the net emigration of British citizens since 2011. Given that British citizens who emigrate are more likely to be highly skilled, this slowdown is surely a good thing for our economy. Yet because net migration has been targeted, this trend has been made to look like a bad thing.

However, the migration target has not been missed purely for reasons outside the Government’s control. It has full control of visas for migrants from countries outside the EU, yet net migration from non-EU countries alone is nearly double the target.

A numerical net migration target has created more problems than it has solved. It has not only proven unachievable but attempts to meet it, through restrictions on visas, have been damaging for the UK’s long-term economic recovery – particularly for the business and university sectors. Despite this, opinion polls show that the idea of some kind of migration target is still very popular with voters. So what are the options?

A migration target linked to job vacancies

One improved option would be to adopt a flexible economic migration target that is automatically linked to job vacancies. As job vacancies go up, more workers can come to the UK. When job vacancies go down, the target is automatically lowered to reassure UK workers about their concerns over the jobs market. Such a target should be achievable, as migration and vacancies tend to move up and down together anyway (see chart).

Net UK migration, and total labour market vacancies, 2001 – 2014

Sources: ONS Vacancy Survey, Labour Force Survey, and ONS LTIM estimates

Targeting public confidence in the immigration system

A better option still – and the one we at the SMF recommend – is to target public confidence itself. Targeting an improvement in public confidence in the immigration system could borrow conceptually from the target for the Criminal Justice System, where the aim was to achieve a statistically significant improvement based on responses to a survey. Adopting a similar approach for the immigration system would show that the Government is listening to people, whilst having the advantage of being broad enough to encompass a range of public concerns – over the labour market, public services, and integration.

The target could be supplemented by a range of mechanisms for achieving increased confidence:

  • Statistics on labour market vacancies could be used to set the level of visas for economic migrants.
  • Data on public confidence could be broken down locally to determine the geographic areas where people are most concerned. Funding from the European Social Fund could be used to help public services in areas identified as needing additional help.
  • Consequences for the Government failing to meet its target could be created. For example, the government could enter into a binding legal commitment to increase confidence, as happens with carbon emissions and child poverty targets.

In the current row over the Tory migration target, it is easy to lose sight of what good policy on immigration should look like. Each of the main parties would do well to clearly demonstrate how they intend to address voters’ concerns, but do so in a way that is achievable and does not negatively impact on the UK’s economic recovery.