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Reducing Net Immigration to the “Tens of Thousands”

Reducing Net Immigration to the “Tens of Thousands”

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Reducing Net Immigration to the “Tens of Thousands”

Going back to the days of the David Cameron premiership, the Government had an aspiration to reduce net annual migration (ie the number of migrants coming to the UK minus the number of migrants leaving the UK) to the “tens of thousands” – ie less than 100,000.

As readers may remember, Theresa May was David Cameron’s Home Secretary, and this policy was one that was strongly identified with her. Now of course Theresa May is Prime Minister, and the aspiration remains Government policy.

Is this policy a good idea? And, a similarly fundamental question, is it possible to achieve it? To deal with the second question first, we say probably not, and certainly not in the foreseeable future.

Net annual migration is apparently falling at the moment, but it is – according to official statistics from the Office for National Statistics – currently still over 270,000. This kind of calculation is never going to be simple, as it necessarily involves a certain amount of conjecture, but it might go something like this. A good proportion of net migrants are of course Europeans (currently at least half) but, according to the Home Office, free movement rights for Europeans are not going to be curtailed until Brexit actually happens, which is apparently likely to happen at some point in 2019.

So for the next couple of years Europeans are likely to remain a large component of the figures and it is highly unlikely that the net migration figure will fall to anything near 100,000

It is superficially attractive to imagine that, when Brexit happens, suddenly no more Europeans will be allowed to come to the UK and the figure could fall dramatically. But of course it won’t. As (almost) everybody knows, European workers – of whom there may be about 3 million currently in the UK – play a huge role in the British economy, and it is likely to largely continue. The Government is going to have to allow European migration to the UK to continue after Brexit – something that is has evidently realised, as the media indicates that it is having detailed discussions about how to regulate such European migration after Brexit.

So Brexit is not going to have such a dramatic effect as some might imagine, and it is difficult to see how the figure of 100,000 will be achieved even after Brexit.

The first question, is the policy a good idea?, is a rather deeper one. The Government maintains that the large influx of migrants over the last few years has put an unacceptable strain on “public services” and the housing market. The “public services” argument seems rather vague but, as many readers will know, the housing market is under extraordinary pressure at the moment, both in the purchasing and rental sectors. There are too many people chasing too few homes and so of course the prices go up and up. More homes are being built, but the extra homes do not meet the growing demand.

The Government’s argument in this respect is a legitimate argument, but there are other – broader – arguments. Many economists maintain that immigration is generally good for the UK. The UK has an ageing population and immigrants, who tend to be on the younger side and who tend to come here to work, will contribute the taxes that we will need to pay for state pensions and welfare benefits. Contrary to public perception, many immigrants do not qualify for welfare benefits, and it is a statistical reality that, taken in the round, immigrants make a good economic contribution to the UK.

And although there is some evidence that in some instances the presence of large numbers of foreign workers may have reduced wages in the UK (an accusation often made), the statistical effect is not very strong. And, in any case, with the projected increases in the minimum wage, which is also likely to have an upwards effect on wage levels higher than the national minimum wage, this problem, to the extent that it exists, may be alleviated.

Probably you will not hear Government Ministers making these arguments very much in the General Election campaign – and you may not hear many other politicians doing it either. Being pro-immigrant is not currently the best political flavour. But, irrespective of this, we do think that it is important to be roundly informed about these issues. There are honourable exceptions but by and large the media does not address the issues fully, and politicians generally don’t either.

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