Immigration: broken net migration targets seem pointless but they’re all politicians like Rishi Sunak have

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NationalWorld’s politics editor Tom Hourigan considers what purpose targets serve - and whether there’s ever a right number when it comes to migration

It’s a fact of modern politics that Conservative Prime Ministers have to be seen to be tough on immigration. Ever since the Tories returned to power in 2010, all five occupants of Downing Street have vowed to bring the numbers down. They’ve tinkered with the methods a bit, but the goal hasn’t changed.

Why? Political parties on the centre-right always talk a big game on migration because it appeals to their core voters, who have genuine worries about its impact on public services, jobs and society at large. But after 2010, the Conservatives faced what they thought might be an existential threat in the form of UKIP and Nigel Farage, who surged in popularity.

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In the 2015 general election, Farage stood on a platform of bringing migration below 50,000 a year. The then Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to cut it below 100,000 - and didn’t. But faced with a split in the right-wing vote, he couldn’t U-turn or backtrack. Brexit has hardened the view that the Tories can’t afford to fracture their support base - especially when the polls suggest they’re on course to lose the next election - so the promise remains: migration needs to, and must, fall.

However Rishi Sunak knows he’s in a difficult spot on this issue. Official figures released today (May 25) show net migration (that’s the difference between the number of people entering the UK and the number leaving) stood at 606,000 at the end of 2022 - more than six times the total Cameron promised. Within 40 minutes of the data coming out, the PM was on the sofa of ITV’s This Morning - repeating the familiar mantra: “numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that, and I want to bring them down”.

But his predecessors have made similar commitments only to find they’re impossible to deliver - and in an interview with NationalWorld, the Migration Observatory at Oxford University (which impartially analyses immigration data) said politicians of all stripes weren’t always mindful of the tradeoffs. So what’s the point of these targets and, when it comes to immigration, is there ever any “right” number to aim for?


The trouble with targets

Targets by their nature give you something to aim for, a measure of what success might look like - and are the “go-to” tool if you want to corral hundreds if not thousands of civil servants and other officials into delivering the promises you made to the people who put you in power. But when they’re broken, the political cost is inevitably high - particularly if some of your MPs don’t think you’re doing enough to get a handle on the issue and even your own Home Secretary is agitating for speedier results.

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David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson all failed to hit their self-imposed immigration targets - and Rishi Sunak is worried about facing the same fate David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson all failed to hit their self-imposed immigration targets - and Rishi Sunak is worried about facing the same fate
David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson all failed to hit their self-imposed immigration targets - and Rishi Sunak is worried about facing the same fate | Kim Mogg/Getty

Tory backbenchers lined up in the House of Commons this morning to express their concerns about the latest figures. Martin Vickers said 606,000 was the equivalent of creating “eight new parliamentary constituencies” and that people in his Cleethorpes seat would feel “anger and frustration”. Sir Edward Leigh accused the Treasury of “filling the country up with more and more people” on work visas when the government should be focusing on training and skills to get “British people back to work”.

Broken targets also give your opponents a big stick to beat you with. Labour has previously been reluctant to talk much about immigration because of its own internal splits on how to approach it but sensing an opportunity, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the latest numbers were “extraordinary” and showed the Conservatives had “no plan and no grip” on the issue. She pointed to figures showing “work visas are up 119% since before the pandemic” and accused the government of total failure.

And broken targets trigger inevitable calls for drastic, rapid changes in policy - although not everyone in the Conservative party thinks that’s a good idea. The MP Alicia Kearns (who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee) warned against “knee-jerk reactions” and said the way net migration figures are calculated should instead be changed to exclude students who come to the UK. They - she argues - make us an “academic superpower” with all the “soft power dividends” for Britain on the world stage.

Targets can be knocked off course by unexpected events, too. The rise in net migration over the last 18 months was driven in part by the UK welcoming Ukrainian refugees and Hong Kong residents fleeing a Chinese crackdown on dissent. Few would think this was the wrong thing to do. Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says there is “strong public support” for this - and that’s why it’s vital the government doesn’t do anything hasty when faced with a “unique set of circumstances”. And yet the targets remain because there’s a need, for the Conservatives particularly, to work towards a number.

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How does a government reduce migration?

If you’re ideologically committed to getting migration down, what are the ways of actually making it happen and why have successive governments failed? Rob McNeil - the Migration Observatory’s deputy director - explained it to me like this.

“At the core of this, if you do something that’s designed to increase or reduce migration, it will bring tradeoffs”, he told NationalWorld. “A lot of the time, people promise to achieve a goal in one direction then don’t factor in the consequences.”

“For instance, the majority of skilled work visas are going to people in the health and care sectors so you could substantially reduce migration by reducing the numbers coming into those sectors but then you’d have challenges in the NHS. Alternatively you could reduce the number of people coming to study (from overseas) but because of the foreign revenue it brings in, that impacts on the UK economy.”

Social care is one of the sectors that’s relied on overseas work visas to fill staffing gaps Social care is one of the sectors that’s relied on overseas work visas to fill staffing gaps
Social care is one of the sectors that’s relied on overseas work visas to fill staffing gaps

The alternative, McNeil suggests, is for the government to sit and wait. “There’s a pretty reasonable chance the numbers will go down quite a lot”, he says, “but sitting and waiting probably won’t work within the current political cycle because it’s unlikely the numbers will fall dramatically before the next election. That said, the levels we’re seeing at the moment are unlikely to be the new normal”.

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Different perspectives

It’s important to point out that not every major political party wants to slash net migration. The SNP has criticised Westminster’s “obsession” with a crackdown - and wants more powers devolved to Scotland so it can bring in more foreign workers to fill “serious” labour shortages in tourism, agriculture and construction. Some influential business groups like Hospitality UK also want this option - warning that companies are closing several days a week or capping their capacity “simply because they do not have sufficient staff to meet demand”.

For the government’s part, Number 10 said this lunchtime it needed to “strike the right balance between supporting our economy and getting those numbers down” below the net migration total Sunak inherited from Liz Truss last autumn. He may not be willing to say a number out loud, but targets are - without doubt - still driving his policy. Being able to demonstrate even a slight fall in net migration by the next election allows Sunak to say he’s delivering for the British people, even if the policy isn’t working well at all for different parts of the economy.

And that’s the issue at the heart of this debate. All of us, not just MPs, have different views on what constitutes an “acceptable” number of people moving to the UK because there is no right or wrong answer. Migration brings opportunities and challenges. It simultaneously allows our public services to keep functioning and puts extra demand on them. The government of the day decides how to manage that - and defines success on its own terms.

“You can go for any number you want and you can try to hit that target again and again,” Dr McNeil says. “It depends what your political vision for the nation is. But this sort of magical thinking where you decide to do things then say you’ll achieve other things that are incompatible with that is a problem.”

“If you’re going to put a plan to the people, it’s important they recognise the tradeoffs associated with the choices that they make”.

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