Missing the target?
The Government’s target for net migration (the total number of people added to the UK’s population) is to bring it down to less than 100,000 a year by the election. There is a psychological and rhetorical element to this ambition – highlighted by the Prime Minister’s and the Home Secretary’s repeated use of the line that we will have ‘tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands’ of immigrants. It is about demonstrating political will to succeed in an area where many British people feel abandoned by the political class.
Ironically though, as we all know, the capacity of Government to really control net migration is fatally limited. Good work has been done getting a handle on the number of foreign students in the UK – and on ensuring that those here on student visas are really engaging in education rather than work – meaning that in 2012 there were around 75,000 less new migrant students than in the preceding year.
But the reality is that, when the British public start to complain about immigration levels it is rarely students that are top of their list of concerns. Rather, the kind of immigration that raises hackles is the very type of which policy is powerless: low skilled migration that on the one hand is perceived as a threat to jobs and on the other as a potential drain on welfare. Of course, not all of this worry may be entirely economically rational. But that doesn’t stop it being real and politically potent.
It is for these reasons that the coming storm of accession immigration from Bulgaria and Romania is so important. Government’s efforts to control net migration are as much about demonstrating political action in the face of unanswered questions as anything else. Another bout of inward migration – particularly one that makes the Government’s own stated target unobtainable – hurts trust in politics. And today, MigrationWatch is predicting an influx that could do just that.
According to calculations by MigrationWatch Director Matthew Pollard, the number of new arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania is likely to be between 30,000 and 70,000 a year for five years. Taking their central estimate of 50,000 a year it becomes difficult to see how Government hopes to achieve their ambitions on net migration – short of finding tens of thousands of folk to voluntarily leave at the same time.
Now, of course, this is merely an estimate. It could well be wrong. And there will be many who rush to judge it as partisan and biased because of is source. Government could well hit their target on the back of very low new accession immigration, trust in politics to resolve this most difficult of questions may be restored, we might (who knows) all stop talking about immigration.
All of that might happen. And I sincerely hope that it does. But anyone in politics planning to close their eyes, hold their breath and hope for the best might want to consider this. In 2003, the Home Office commissioned an estimate for inward migration – they concluded that, at most, Britain could expect 13,000 new arrivals a year. MigrationWatch – to much rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth – argued we were much more likely to see upwards of 40,000 a year. In the six years between 2004 and 2010, 1.5 million eastern Europeans arrived in Britain – the equivalent of 250,000 a year.
In 2014, when Bulgarians and Romanians earn the right to come and work in the UK, it shouldn’t just be Theresa May and her SpAds who worry about the fallout. Yes, it’s their political futures directly in the line of fire. But it's the whole political class that stands to suffer if the public are given cause to feel, once again, that our politics simply can’t answer their concerns about immigration.