5 July 2023

The New Conservatives don’t go far enough on immigration


All reasonable people agree on the need to reduce immigration – population growth of almost 1% per annum from net migration is simply unsustainable. That is why the first big policy intervention from the New Conservatives parliamentary caucus, a ‘plan to cut migration’, should be cautiously welcomed.

Undoubtedly it will be a headache for Rishi Sunak: already underperforming on his five core pledges, the last thing he will want is an implicit sixth commitment. But for Suella Braverman, who is reportedly fighting a running battle with Cabinet colleagues responsible for pro-immigration departments, this plan is surely timely. For if the Tories want to get numbers down ahead of the next general election, action is needed now, before the window of opportunity closes. 

They should be under no illusion about the importance of doing so. Voters care more about cost of living pressures than anything else at the moment. But immigration still matters a lot; 59% of all voters and, crucially, 74% of those who voted Conservative in 2019 think immigration has been too high over the last decade.

In 2019, the Conservative manifesto promised that ‘overall numbers would come down’. Manifestly this has not happened. Indeed, with numbers having surged again in 2021 to 488,000 and in 2022 to at least 606,000, a new record for annual net migration has now been set in 5 of the last 13 years in which the Tories have been in government. Consequently, Labour are now more trusted on immigration. And unless the Tories can show significant progress on reducing migration over the next year, most voters are unlikely to trust anything the Conservatives promise on immigration at the next election – or ever again.  

The stated aim of the New Conservatives group is therefore to get net migration down by more than 380,000 people per year before the next election, to below the 2019 figure of 226,000. Of course that is still a very large number – and way above David Cameron’s ‘tens of thousands’ pledge. But, combined with an expected decrease in Ukrainians and Hongkongers arriving here, the New Conservatives calculate that net migration could be brought down to around 163,000 (still a level unheard of until 1999) via the policy changes they outline

In fact, it is almost certainly too late for 2023. Home Office visa data for Q1 suggests that underlying numbers (excluding Ukrainians and Hongkongers) are still rising rapidly, with the number of work and study visas up by 30% on the same period in 2022. But perhaps the New Conservative goal might be feasible for the 12 months from June 2023 to 2024, ahead of an autumn 2024 election.  

However, even leaving aside the ongoing surge, they probably underestimate the scale of the reduction needed. The 606,000 figure for 2022 will almost certainly be revised upwards over the next data releases, just as the preceding 12-month figure, for June 2021 to June 2022, was revised upwards by 102,000 in May. This is largely to do with complexities around measuring and modelling the emigration side of the net migration equation, as I have explained elsewhere.

That being said, while we should take their exact numbers with a pinch a salt, the New Conservatives’ proposals would still have a substantial impact on numbers, if implemented. They mostly fall into three broad categories: reducing worker numbers, reducing student numbers and restricting asylum routes. The latter category is wrapped up in the drama of court battles and the progress of the Illegal Migration Bill through Parliament, and in this area, the New Conservatives’ proposals basically echo Government policy (and Centre for Policy Studies recommendations).  

But on the worker front, they rightly identify visa salary thresholds as a crucial area for reform. The 2019 manifesto promised ‘an Australian-style points-based system’. But that does not mean numbers automatically come down – it depends on how the system is calibrated. 

Our system is set up so as to open the door to the very large numbers of people who can relatively easily attain the 70 visa points needed. The main salary threshold (worth 20 points) is currently £26,200 – just 80% of the median wage. The threshold is calculated by the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), according to the 25th percentile of annual earnings across all eligible occupations.  

But there is no intrinsic reason why this benchmark need be used. If the priority is reduction, then we need a new salary benchmark, with a new calculated threshold accordingly. Likewise, we need to reform the methodology for the over-expanding ‘Shortage Occupation List’ (SOL), where the salary threshold is just £20,960.

On the SOL, the New Conservatives skirt around fundamental reform, focusing just on care workers. But they do present two compelling alternatives for the main threshold: £34,000 and £38,000. The first is benchmarked to UK GDP per capita, so that migration would be more aligned with increasing GDP per capita and raising overall living standards, rather than expanding the economy while diluting national prosperity. The second is based on MAC calculations of how much migrants typically have to earn to be fiscally neutral.

On student numbers, one of their proposals is an extension of Government policy due to come into effect from January 2024: ending the ability of students on one-year masters courses to bring their dependents. This at least is pretty uncontroversial and seems very unlikely to affect international demand for places at British universities. 

More controversial is the closure of the Graduate Route, which allows students to stay on for two years and work after they graduate, without any of the salary safeguards and other requirements on the work visa route. They combine this idea with a proposal to restrict which universities can take international students, excluding poorly ranked institutions. 

In fact, a similar principle is already established in the High Potential Individual (HPI) visa route’s list of eligible overseas universities. Extending the principle of selection by quality to UK institutions would be entirely consistent with the emphasis on talent, skills and earnings which is supposed to be at the heart of the post-Brexit system of lower and better quality immigration.

But laudable though these proposals are, they will of course make vice-chancellors squeal. And that points to an important weakness in the New Conservatives’ intervention: their ideas amount to a plan, but not a strategy. There is little sense of prioritisation, trade-offs across government or how to overcome resistance to their proposals (or even where that resistance will come from); and their short-term electoral focus inevitably means they look more at treating symptoms than underlying problems.    

For example, on the student front, numbers are going up as part of the ‘International Education Strategy’ (IES), essentially a strategy for turning the UK’s education sector into an export industry by boosting the international student inflow to 600,000 per annum. And the awarding of student visas has essentially been outsourced to universities, with the only real limit on numbers being the speed at which they can expand courses. Many are now in the business of selling de facto residence and work permits, with funding models ever more dependent on international students. 

So a strategy for getting immigration down needs to look at fundamental reform of the higher education sector and core DfE policy, and how to do battle with the stakeholder-bureaucratic nexus of the educational establishment. The New Conservatives’ plan, though admirable in many ways, falls short on this front. 

Ultimately, the New Conservatives’ plan for cutting migration it is welcome contribution to the debate, but it does not in itself represent a strategy for getting migrant numbers back down to pre-2010 levels, let alone sustainable, pre-Blair levels. And with inchoate anger on the right slowly coalescing around the idea of ‘net zero migration’, we will need such a strategy sooner rather than later. Time to put our thinking caps on.

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