5 June 2024

It will take more than a cap to curb migration


Net migration this Parliament has exceeded two million, equating to immigration-driven population growth of 3% in just four years – twice the rate of the 2010s, and seven times the rate of the 1990s. 

Clearly, despite pledges that ‘overall numbers will come down’, the Australian-style points-based system in operation since 2020 is not having the desired result. Even with the changes to the Immigration Rules earlier this year, net migration is still projected to be running at rates of around 315,000 per annum by the end of the decade – higher than on the eve of the 2016 Brexit vote. 

That is why the new Conservative proposals to revisit the fundamentals of the immigration system – including implementing an annual cap voted on by Parliament – is such a necessary and welcome development. In outline, if not specifics, this was one of the core recommendations of a recent Centre for Policy Studies report, ‘Taking back Control’, co-authored by former Conservative ministers Robert Jenrick and Neil O’Brien.  

As we argued in the paper, it is only by having an overall cap that we can force proper decision-making and a conversation about the trade-offs between different types of migration. With Parliament voting on a migration budget each year, we would be able to introduce to migration policy some of the transparency and accountability that has been missing over recent decades. 

Our report also highlighted that far too much of the debate around migration is hamstrung by low-quality official data and asymmetric modelling – forecasts which take into account the benefits but not the costs of migration. The migration budget, and the more joined-up and nuanced migration data we will see as a result, will make for better evidence-based policy. It should be supported by people on all sides of the migration debate.

But while a step in the right direction, the Conservatives’ proposals fall short on some counts. For a start, the key visa routes, such as student and graduate routes, are excluded. Since students accounted for 33% of the increase in visas issued to ‘main applicants’ (so excluding dependants) between 2021 and 2023, this is hardly trivial – the cap is no cap at all while such a large chunk of immigration is essentially at the discretion of university vice-chancellors. 

Similarly, delegating responsibility for setting immigration caps to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) represents a backwards step, reducing ministerial oversight while empowering the quango state. Essentially, Parliament will be presented with MAC numbers to vote on, even if a Conservative government would instruct that the numbers go down year on year. Given the long-standing and already cavernous democratic deficit on immigration policy, it seems unwise to take an approach which, however well intentioned, could widen this still further.

So while it is good that the Conservatives are open to fundamental reform of the immigration system, clearly there are some kinks in their proposals which need ironing out.   

Nevertheless, in theory their proposals should appeal to voters. Polls show that immigration is a top-three issue, behind only the economy and the state of the NHS – and the single most important issue for Leave voters, Conservative voters and voters over 49. 

More than 60% of voters now think that immigration has been ‘too high’ over the last decade – 10 times the number who think it has been too low (6%). This rises to 91% and 88% among Conservative and Leave voters respectively. But pretty much however you slice the data, there is at least a plurality for ‘too high’, and often a majority. For example, more than half of Londoners think it has been too high, as do almost half of Lib Dems. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, supposedly a pro-immigration cohort, 41% think it has been too high (versus 7% too low). But for every other age group, ‘too high’ is the majority view.

The problem for the Tories is that after four years of failing to stop the small boats while presiding over record levels of legal migration – 764,000 in 2022 alone – their credibility among voters on immigration is compromised. Only 15% now think the Conservatives would be the best political party ‘at handling asylum and immigration’, down from 34% in early 2021 and trailing behind Labour (24%) and ‘none’ (19%).   

The timing of the proposals has also been unfortunate, coming a day after Nigel Farage rocked Westminster with his surprise decision to re-enter the fray and stand for Reform. 

The Conservatives have promised a cap – but are reluctant to specify numbers or a target. But Farage is touting ‘net zero migration’ – one in, one out. While this would be complicated to achieve – we need to massively improve the accuracy and timeliness of migration data for a start – it has an obvious rhetorical appeal.

Yet with both the Conservatives and Reform now talking about it, immigration policy is entering the national conversation in a way it hasn’t since 2016. Given the scale of migration, and its economic, social and political impacts as highlighted in ‘Taking Back Control’, this is absolutely vital. What we just need now is for other parties, not least Labour, to be far clearer about the level of migration they think Britain needs and how they will go about delivering it.  

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Karl Williams is Research Director at the Centre for Policy Studies.