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Rows over net migration numbers miss the point – Rishi Sunak needs a post-Brexit migration strategy

Rishi Sunak should set clear migration objectives for his whole government to follow

Rishi Sunak launching the government's new legislation on migrant channel crossings at a press conference in Downing Street.
Rishi Sunak needs to remember that ‘stop the boats’ does not amount to a migration strategy.

Rishi Sunak should set clear migration objectives for his whole government to follow – which means being clear about the trade-offs as well as what is in and out of his control, write Rhys Clyne and Sachin Savur

Net migration reached 606,000 people in 2022. The figure is lower than some predictions, but far higher than repeated Conservative pledges – and is a cause of tension within the government. But the related cabinet row about how to (or not to) restrict migration is revealing of Rishi Sunak’s more pressing, underlying problem: his lack of a coherent migration strategy.  

This week marks the latest in a long tradition of interdepartmental arguments over migration  

Every part of government has an interest in migration. The Home Office has tended to focus on limiting – as far as plausible – the number of people arriving in the UK, understandably given successive home secretaries have been charged with achieving their government’s target to reduce net migration. For some departments, including the Treasury, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business and Trade, migration is a primarily economic lever with which to secure workforces and promote exports. Others, such as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), and devolved and local government, manage migrant support services, including those on integration and community cohesion. 

But governments of all stripes have struggled to agree a cross-departmental approach, finding it difficult to manage these often conflicting priorities, especially when economic interests have coincided with geopolitical events. The last Labour government did not anticipate the impact of immigration from newly-joined EU member states in and after 2004 19 Watt N and Wintour P, ‘How immigration came to haunt Labour: the inside story’, The Guardian, 24 March 2015,    , while migrants arriving in the wake of the Eurozone crisis meant David Cameron consistently failed by large margins to meet his target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. 20 McNeil, R, ‘Curtains, at last, for the net migration target’, Centre on Migration Policy and Society, 10 January 2020, 

It is the prime minister’s job to broker agreement on migration policy 

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, set out her stall by freelancing on immigration at the National Conservative Conference last week, arguing for reduced migration and investment in domestic labour. On the other hand, Jeremy Hunt as chancellor sees inward migration as a way to plug workforce gaps and fuel growth. But it is Rishi Sunak who decides government policy, and he needs to make a decision and set out clear objectives for his team to follow.  

This means facing up to the realities about migration after Brexit. Firstly, without EU freedom of movement, the government’s decisions over migration rules are more integral to shaping the UK economy. While the UK was a member of the EU, prime ministers could in part blame factors outside of their control for workforce gaps and a reliance on market attraction. It is now the government’s explicit responsibility to decide whether and how to use visas and migration rules to, for example, plug the 10% vacancy rate in adult social care, 9% in the NHS, or equivalent pressures in agriculture.  

Second, high inward migration is in part driven by politically popular decisions in Westminster – which were taken following geopolitical events beyond ministers’ control. Very few people would begrudge ministers’ decision to welcome the 166,000 people fleeing war and persecution in Ukraine and Hong Kong last year.  

Third, this week’s change of tack on international students – by restricting their right to bring dependents to the UK – is not a painless way to reduce inward migration. The UK’s target to welcome 600,000 international students has been a major and, on its terms, successful export policy.  

On all three counts, the prime minister needs to communicate clearly what aspects of migration are in and out of his government’s control, what his priorities for migration are, and, consequently, what trade-offs he is and is not willing to make.  

Sunak needs to remember that ‘stop the boats’ does not amount to a migration strategy. 74,751 people claimed asylum in the UK last year, 45,755 of whom arrived on small boats across the Channel. This compares to net migration of 606,000 in the same time. Small boat crossings are a problem that need to be fixed, but the prime minister should be wary of focusing on that issue at the expense of developing an overall plan for migration.  

The Home Office needs to learn to get along with other departments 

While it is the prime minister’s responsibility to ensure his government maintains a coherent immigration policy, the Home Office, as the lead department, needs to work effectively with other parts of government. Unfortunately, too many Whitehall colleagues complain of the Home Office’s ‘Millwall mindset’ towards other departments: ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’. 

The department has faced disputes with local authorities over the use of hotels as asylum accommodation 21 Kenyon M, ‘Hotels to house asylum seekers “out of our control”’, Local Government Chronicle, 6 December 2022,    and the hundreds of children seeking asylum who have gone missing from such hotels. 22 Taylor D and Syal R, ‘Home Office accused of “dereliction of duty” over missing child asylum seekers’, The Guardian, 24 January 2023,   It has inadequately worked with lawyers and refugee organisations over its plans to cut the asylum backlog. 23 Dathan M, ‘Illegal Migration Bill answers will of the people, ministers warn Lords’, The Times, 9 May 2023,   And its flat-footed response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine contrasted starkly with DLUHC’s relatively effective co-ordination of Homes for Ukraine. 24 Rutter J, ‘The Home Office’s botched Ukraine crisis response needs an urgent rethink’, Institute for Government, 9 March 2022,   We analyse the Home Office’s difficulties working with other parts of government – and its ‘fortress mentality’ – in our paper, Home Truths, published today. 

To avoid future crises, the Home Office as lead department needs to address its underlying problems and work more effectively with the rest of government in its management of the migration system. But until the PM grasps the nettle on migration policy, the debate in government will continue to be dominated by futile arguments over the latest statistical release.  

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