27 February 2020

Is Boris Johnson about to fall into the immigration numbers trap?

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One of Boris Johnson’s first acts as Prime Minister last July was to ditch the previous government’s net migration target.

Today’s latest quarterly statistics – with net migration at 240,000 – shows why it made sense for the new Prime Minister to decide that he “did not want to play a numbers game” on immigration, as Downing Street explained at the time.

For 37 successive quarters, as Home Secretary and then Prime Minister, Theresa May failed to meet the pledge to cut net migration ‘from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands’. Dropping a promise that the government could never keep at least enabled her successor to avoid racking up a full decade of failure.

So the question driving policy would no longer be ‘whatever it is, how can we get less of it?’. Johnson has different instincts on immigration to his predecessor and so his government argues that it wants some flows of migration to rise – while other flows fall. This Prime Minister rarely misses an opportunity to declare that he wants Britain to be “a giant magnet” for scientists from around the world. Dropping a ‘one size fits all’ net migration target has enabled the government to unlock the broad cross-party and public consensus on the gains of student and skilled migration – introducing more liberal rules to enable more overseas students to work in the UK for a couple of years after graduating from a British university. And when a commitment to the NHS is so central to the government’s political message, it is hardly going to want to refuse visas for doctors and nurses that NHS trusts want to employ to keep waiting lists down.

Yet if Boris Johnson came to office last summer confident of escaping that immigration numbers trap, his election manifesto this winter may have reopened it. The manifesto pledged to curb low-skill migration – and the Conservatives also added a late pledge that overall numbers would fall.

After free movement, the government intends to introduce a new global UK immigration system. That will be more restrictive than EU free movement – but it will also be more open than the non-EU rules we now have.

Because of shifting patterns of migration since the 2016 referendum, EU net migration, soon to be restricted, contributed 64,000 to net migration a year in the latest figures, while non-EU migration contributed 250,000, before the government’s reforms make the system a little bit more open.

So the new framework will see considerably less EU migration than in 2016 – but the government’s new policies target flows of migration that have fallen significantly before the new system comes in.

The headlines last week show that the government is sending tough signals on immigration control to friends and foes alike. Yet so much of the devil is in the detail. The policy framework offers the government plenty of scope for a considerably more pragmatic approach than the headlines suggest, if that is the political choice that it makes.

The new immigration proposals have one significant improvement over the December 2018 White Paper, which set a salary level of £30,000 as a stark cut-off, proposing that all migration for work below that threshold would be on temporary, one year, non-renewable visas, despite all of the historic failures of a model that promotes immigration without integration.

So the important change is not just the reduction in the threshold, to £25,600, but that those who come to work in medium-salary roles can also secure a route to settlement, and eventual citizenship. Instead of a new Gastarbeiter model for Britain, those who come to work in roles such as teaching assistants and in nurseries or on construction sites will be able to join the communities that they are coming to live and work in.

That will also apply to those able to get visas when offered roles paying salaries of £20,500, for jobs on the Migration Advisory Committee’s Shortage Occupation List.

None of the difficult questions about immigration policy relate to the scientists and engineers, ballerinas and Premier League footballers that the Prime Minister likes to talk most about – but to the medium salary, mid-skill and low-skill roles on which attitudes are more divided. The government’s framework, in effect, defers most of the difficult decisions until later in the parliament – to the question of which jobs get onto the Shortage Occupation List, for how long, and on what terms.

The government has made another pragmatic decision, rather at odds with the headlines which greeted its announcements. It has accepted the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendation that the salary thresholds should be 30% lower for ‘new entrants’ to the labour market, defined as those under 26. So the £25,600 threshold would be £18,000 for a younger worker – as long as it is a skilled job at ‘RQF level 3’, broadly equivalent to A-levels. People would be given a five-year period before they would need to have progressed to the higher threshold. This is not a solution for all sectors worried about the government’s proposals, such as retail, but it is an important example of the hidden flexibility in the new framework.

Most of the public are ‘balancers’ – seeing both pressures and gains of migration. They favour an approach to migration which is controlled and selective, yet pragmatic about the jobs that need doing, and fair to those who come to live in Britain.

The government’s choices often chime with public intuitions – so Johnson may have a good shot at success if he asks to be judged on whether there is public consent for the mix of policy choices that the government makes on immigration.

Yet the numbers trap could yet catch another Prime Minister. Tightening EU migration and loosening non-EU migration looks as likely to be a recipe for more migration as it is for less.  If the government’s signal is that the public should judge its record by whether overall immigration levels have fallen – and by how much – then this government may also be setting itself up to fail by making promises to cut the numbers that its policies are not really trying to keep.

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Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future