Does anyone think the government’s flagship policy of a cap is a good idea? As Alasdair Murray has argued recently on these pages, it sinks under the weight of its own contradictions the moment it is put under any scrutiny. It played well as a simple slogan in the UK general election campaign, but since then it has been hard to find anyone who supports the policy who isn’t called either Theresa May or David Cameron.
A short and devastating paper by my colleague at ippr, Sarah, Mulley, called The Limits to Limits was among the first to examine forensically what a cap might mean in practice. We know that senior Liberal Democrats read this paper before the election campaign and we believe some of its analysis was used in the cabinet committee meeting at which the Home Office’s first attempts at explaining the cap was savaged by other ministers. As it happens, however, the charge was led by two conservatives, Education Secretary Michael Gove and Universities Minister David Willets, who argued, quite rightly, that a cap could damage the UK economy and hurt the Higher Education sector.
Since then the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable has led the attack against the cap – knowing that his core constituency, the business lobby, is urging him on. Many of his more acid comments about the cap were made while he was part of that elephantine government delegation to India - where the Prime Minister also had his ear bent by his Indian government hosts, who are hostile to a policy which could threaten a healthy circulation of highly skilled economic migrants between the two countries.
The response of Downing Street and the Home Office has been that the cap is ‘non-negotiable’. It could hardly have been otherwise given its prominence as a Conservative election pledge, but it will be interesting nonetheless to see what the cap will amount to when it is unveiled in the autumn. (At present we have a temporary cap while a consultation process takes place.) After all the fuss it may be that it amounts to little more than a symbolic gesture to meet voters’ concerns about immigration in a time of economic austerity.
Vince Cable may have given the game away when he said he said he was only arguing for a ‘flexible’ cap. A flexible cap, of course, is not really a cap at all. If the number can be ‘flexed’ up to meet the requirements of the economy then it would really be better described as a target. If this is what does emerge, the government would be acting shrewdly in my opinion – moving to bear down on immigration, which is what the public wants - but cutting the ground from under its critics whose main objection is the arbitrary and fixed nature of a cap.
For, although ippr thinks the cap is nonsensical, we understand – and in some ways support – the coalition government's underlying intentions. It is fair enough for the government to take a view on what kind of migration levels it thinks would be in the country’s interests, and as I argued in a previous article, I don’t think there is anything essentially progressive in high levels of net migration year on year. On the whole, the evidence shows that the high immigration of the last decade or so was driven by the demands of the then booming economy and has been broadly beneficial at the macro-level. But there is no escaping the fact that the public is exhausted by the scale and pace of immigration – and sceptical as to whether the benefits have been evenly shared. However, ippr research has shown that it is possible to draw a distinction between attitudes to migrants as individuals - which are generally very positive, and attitudes to high net migration which are generally negative.
These findings are frustrating to some pro-migration campaigners. ‘Why can’t we convert the positive attitudes towards migrants themselves into support for more migration?” they say, arguing that there is a fundamental contradiction between the two positions. But that is to miss the point, I think. Rather it is the pro-migration lobby that has got it wrong. After all, what matters more, numbers or people? The latter, surely? As a society we have come a long way in accepting and even enjoying the diversity and difference that migration brings and on the whole we can be quite proud of our welcoming personal attitudes to migrants.
However, we risk squandering this progress, if by some contorted logic we end up arguing (or appearing to argue) that the only way you really show support for migrants is to argue for ever higher levels of immigration. If that is what it takes to be pro-migrant, then we are playing a very dangerous game. Fortunately the BNP and other extreme groups have had little success in using high immigration to create racial division and conflict in this country. But we should not take public tolerance and good sense for granted.
So, setting a target for reducing immigration levels over, say, the life time of the parliament, is fair enough, even if it is probably unnecessary. I certainly do not think those supporting migrants should take to the barricades to protest against it. It is already the case that in defending migration against recent onslaughts, many of us have found ourselves arguing that the numbers are not as high as anti-migration campaigners suggest. Therefore, it is not such a huge leap to embrace the idea that a lower level of immigration would actually be a good thing. Of course, this conclusion does beg a few questions – namely, what is meant by a lower level, how can it be reached, and what happens in the longer term?
On the question of what the level of immigration should be, the view at ippr is that answer should be ‘quite a bit lower than recently’. We don’t want to be drawn back towards a cap by being too rigid in setting a number, but we certainly think that if, over the next year or two, the annual net level dipped below 100,000 for the first time in more than a decade it would be a helpful psychological signal. If this happens, as it might, the public would see that migration levels are cyclical – what goes up, can go down. But the question then follows: how then can this lower level be achieved?
The economic downturn is already doing most of the heavy lifting. We’ve now had a succession of quarterly statistics which show that net migration is dropping – with the reversal of the great Eastern European inflow also contributing significantly to this trend. It is still early days ( the scheme is only two years old) but the Points Based System should also help to bear down on immigration numbers – as will the increased border security measures which have been rolled out over the last few years.
There is almost certainly more scope to tackle abuse of the foreign student route and without hurting our reputation as a magnet for the brightest and best. Some aspects of family migration may have to be looked at, and as I’ve been arguing elsewhere we need finally to confront the thorny issue of returns. This remains a blind spot for some. But if, for instance, we want to achieve the long cherished aim of ending child detention which the actor and activist Colin Firth argued for so eloquently on these pages, we need to accept that there will have to be scope for enforced removal of families if they are judged to have no right to remain in the UK and they persistently refuse to accept voluntary return packages. Alternatives to detention that promote voluntary return but end with not a single family actually signing up – as has been the case with the both the Millfield and Glasgow pilots – invite ridicule. Return should be carried out in a reasonable way, but in the end it has simply got to happen – and at greater levels and faster speed than of late. There needs to be hard headed compromise between UK Border Agency and the ngo's working to support migrants to achieve this outcome.
Bring this all together and I believe we would see a significant drop in net migration over the next few years, partly as a result of the natural cycle and partly as a result of better managed processes. No need for a cap.
But how long would this drop in numbers last? A cycle being a cycle, isn’t it likely that when the economy picks up, so will migrant inflows? After all, we cannot just change the economic model we have built over the last twenty or thirty years overnight? To equip ourselves to be less reliant on migrant labour will require the sort of restructuring of the economy which takes a generation? All fair points and, yes, the drop in net migration might only be temporary.
But at least it will give us some breathing space for building a stronger mainstream consensus about how we deal with migration in a global world in the longer term. I remain convinced that demonstrating our ability to control and manage migration in our own interests will be an important part of any new strategy. I’m quite unapologetic about that. But I plead guilty to one of the criticisms of my previous article on this site. As Markus S (sic) commented:
What has been entirely lacking from current debates on migration in this country, in particular during the general election campaign, is a strong voice (from progressives or anyone else) to defend the benefits which migration has brought to this country.
This is a well made point – and I accept that we do need many more voices talking about migration in positive terms. Migration is something not just to defend, but to celebrate. But it is true too that we’ve had plenty to celebrate in recent years. And it is for this reason that I would like to see reduced immigration, while at the same time arguing that a cap is not a sensible way to achieve that outcome.