14 December 2018

After an 18-month delay, the Government is due to publish its immigration white paper next week. Joe Owen argues it should scrap the migration target and finally be honest.

The Government is selling its Brexit deal on the basis that it ends freedom of movement – ‘taking back control’ of migration policy. But two and a half years on from the EU referendum, we have very little idea what we will do with this new found control.

The last time this country had an immigration strategy it was 2006 and Labour was in power. Since then the Conservative Party entered office, the UK’s attitude to migration shifted and the Government introduced caps, minimum salary requirements, a net migration target and the hostile environment. All without any overarching plan.

Next week we will finally see the Government’s plan.

A new immigration strategy needs to bridge the widening gap between political rhetoric and policy realities

The message on migration, from Theresa May’s early time in the Home Office to her premiership, has been all about control. This control has been manifested through caps on visas and the overall annual net migration target. But, in practice, both have been pointless.

The net migration target – of bringing migration below 100,000 a year – is a Conservative manifesto commitment and has been since 2010.

It was doomed to start with. Not just because other government departments and businesses thought it would inflict significant damage to the economy, but because it was never in the Government’s gift to deliver. The Government has no control of emigration – how many people choose to leave the UK – and nor has it had control of EU migration.

And yet, the Conservatives retained the target in the 2015 and 2017 manifestos, despite making no serious effort to meet it after 2013. The one area where the Home Office can control migration – non-EU citizens – has seen increased numbers over that period.

The Home Office also has a ‘cap’ on the number of work visas (known as Tier 2) that can be issued each year to non-EU citizens – around 20,000. But again, the cap is a political gesture rather than a policy. The Government designed the cap to never be hit – and when it is, panic breaks out.

Earlier this year doctors and nurses were ‘removed’ from the cap. Why? The cap was being hit, the Home Office knew they needed more visas and those NHS workers made up 40% of visas and were politically the easiest to remove.

The failure to match policy with political rhetoric has damaged the Home Office and confidence in the Government’s ability to manage migration. Politicians wouldn’t continue to pledge drastic reductions in tax while simultaneously increasing it.  

It’s about time the Government had a plan for migration

There is a fundamental difference of opinions in government on migration. The story has been relatively consistent over the last few years. The Home Secretary is usually the only person around the Cabinet table arguing for reductions. The Chancellor and the Business Secretary disagree.

This debate goes well beyond the Cabinet though. There is a big, open question about how far the Government is willing to prioritise the economy at the expense of some voters’ concerns about the societal impact of migration.

This kind of disagreement is why the Government has argued about the white paper for over 18 months. Next week we will see if it has come to a coherent position. The Government needs to set out how migration fits in to its vision for ‘Global Britain’ and how it will support the labour market.

The economy will have to adapt to life without free movement and the Home Office will have to start thinking seriously about the skills the country needs and how it supports the industrial strategy, rather than being all about reducing numbers.

The white paper should set out clear objectives, the policy instruments for achieving it and how they can measure success. If it can’t, the same arguments will continue until 2020 and beyond.

The Home Office could ask the Migration Advisory Committee to help, as it has done on some of the trickiest questions of the last few years. It should put the committee on a statutory footing to protect its integrity, which opens the door to an expanded role. That way, if the Home Office can’t decide what ‘sustainable levels’ of immigration are, it can ask the Migration Advisory Committee to help.

A new immigration strategy is a chance for the Home Office to be honest

For years the Government has over-promised and under-delivered on immigration. But ultimately the time has come for it to have a grown-up conversation – between itself and with the public – on immigration.

Theresa May made over a hundred changes to migration law and policy as Home Secretary, a post she held for six years. Now, after two and a half years as Prime Minister, she will be setting out a vision and plan for migration for the first time.

It might be Sajid Javid’s face on the foreword to the white paper, but it will be the Prime Minister that has shaped the contents.


Assessing the "skills" an immigrant brings on the basis of pay is very likely to cause problems, as pay is very dependent on the industry concerned. For example, I spent 25 years in government funded agricultural research. After my first promotion I was paid the same as a Police Sargent. After gaining another degree, and a second promotion, I was paid the same as a Police Constable. At the same time I could have done virtually the same job as I was doing for a commercial chemical company and would have been paid 3 times as much. Some colleagues on the same pay grade were carrying out very sophisticated operations that were unique in the world, AT the same time I would challenge anyone on £30,000 to join an agricultural fruit picking gang, and maintain the same quality of work at the same pace, for 8 to 14 hours a day, in all weathers, without a substantial training period. "Skill" and "pay" are very different things. A successful immigration policy (if we must have one) should rely on the need for particular skills, rather than what we arbitrarily pay people.