It was highly amusing yesterday listening to the leopardskin-print be-pumped new Home Secretary Teresa May as she squirmed during a BBC radio interview. In time-honoured politician mode, she sought to outline the latest policy, this time on the new LibCon temporary immigration 'cap', whilst studiously avoiding actually talking directly about it or answering any of the questions put to her by Sarah Montague, the interviewer.
Needless to say she repeated the arch Tory hypocrisy of their seeking to curb Labour's 'uncontrolled' immigration policy whilst in the same breath saying that they would seek to tighten immigration controls on people coming into the country to marry, controls that obviously were in place when Labour were in power. May also refused to address the question as to how the government would manage to limit immigration in the light of existing rates of migration from existing EU-accession countries, something which they can have little or no control over, short of leaving the EU. Instead she talked about controlling migration from future accession countries and, rather irrelevantly, constantly referring to the introduction of "a cap on non-EU 'economic migrants'" and trying to learn from how non-EU countries control immigration during the planned 12-week consultation on the implementation of the full 'cap'.
This errant bollox is a typical politician's PR effort designed to cover up the simple fact that the Tories' pre-election promise of returning net migration rates to the tens of thousands of the halcyon days of Thatcher, down from Labour's supposedly 'uncontrolled' hundreds of thousands, is unachievable. Why, and what about this temporary 'cap'?
On the 'cap' front*, what Mark Easton called a "tiny tweak" that's "not even a knotted handkerchief"**, the government plan for a maximum of 24,100 non-EU workers tol be allowed into Britain up till April next year, down by 1,300 on 2009 or a mere 5% reduction. The Financial Times went as far as labelling this temporary 'cap' a "shabby policy". Going on to say, "Labour’s points-based system was already limiting non-EU migration to high flyers or people working in professions with skills gaps. Indeed, if the coalition had left well alone, the number of arrivals would feasibly have fallen further than its interim cap."***
As to the efficacy of returning net migration rates to the '90s, we need to look at some current figures:
Year ending September 2009 net UK migration was 142,000 [503,000 people coming to live and work minus 361,000 leaving].
Of the 503,000, 270,000 (53%) were non-EU citizens; 183,000 were here to study, 176,000 to work and 80,000 were either accompanying someone here to work or study or were arriving to join someone already in the country.
In the first 3 months of 2010, 406,455 visas were issued.
367,145 were for temporary residence (temporary employment, student visas, visitors, etc.).
Less than 10% (39,310) were for permanent settlement or residence.
Only 6,685 of these were Tier 1 (highly skilled workers, leading to settlement) and 16,915 Tier 2 (skilled workers) visas.
In the same quarter, 2.25m (7.84%) of the UK workforce were non-UK nationals, of which 1.235m or 55% were non-EU nationals.
In 2006 the IPPR estimated that 5.5m Britons were living and working abroad, equivalent to 9% of the current UK population. Of these, 40% (2.2m) were classified as professional/managerial. [See also]
The estimated population of non-UK nationals in Britain (Oct 08 - Sept 09) was 4.3m (7.1%). [ONS]
So, whilst its interesting to note that there are many more UK citizens living abroad than non-UK citizen living in the UK, that doesn't concern us here. What does is where this cut from 142,000 to under 100,000 could be achieved, if at all, given that only half of all in-migration can be targeted. Labour's points based system is already severely squeezing visas for non-EU professionals (though not the endless stream of useless overpaid Premier League footballers), so extending the temporary 'cap' is a non-starter, especially as the business world is up in arms about it. For example, one of the largest non-EU groups to be hit further would be Indian nationals, whose lack of new visas (along with those for other subcontinent nationals) has already hit the curry restaurant business, rasing fears of a country-wide biryani-shortage.
One possible area has already been flagged up - foreign national spouses, with the newly proposed covertly-racist language tests.**** Overseas students are the next and most obvious large target (273,610 last year). However, cutting numbers back here could have a drastic economic effect. The income from foreign students (estimated to be £12bn) subsidises further education provision for UK students and cutting foreign student numbers would inevitably force universities and colleges to close, in addition to the obviously vulnerable foreign languages schools. Yet many universities and colleges will already be suffering from the loss of foreign lecturers due to the cap.
Yet, all these potential areas for cuts do not look capable of producing the tens of thousands needed to get back to Cameron's idyllic 1990's figure of 50,000. Sadly, all this anti-immigration bluster may well be exactly what it appears to be - window dressing to get them elected and to keep the Right Whingers onboard. In fact, net migration may well have ended up at less than 100,000 anyway, with little or no help from the government, largely through the effect of the global recession and the ending of the transition arrangements for A8 states brought in by EU countries such as Germany.
* The peak? Though that depends on which way round one wears it.
**"The tiny tweak to the immigration rules announced [yesterday] by the Home Office is not a cap. It's not even a knotted handkerchief." Mark Easton is usually eminently readable on migration matters and invariably cuts through all the spin and bullshit.
*** For example, in the last 9 months there has been a 15% fall in applications by skilled migrants from outside the EU anyway. Plus, the limit is on a 'first come, first served basis' and the 'cap' might be reached after only a few months with pressure from the private sector leading to the government increasing the limit, and the cap does not apply to 'intracompany transfers' leaving open another back door for entry.
**** Mark Easton suggests that "The real issue here is not integration or removing cultural barriers, it might be argued. It is about trying to reduce the economic impact of a legacy of British colonial rule." We somehow doubt whether your average Tory really bothers that much about "the economic impact of a legacy of British colonial rule."