The Home Affairs Committee’s new report ′Immigration policy: basis for building consensus’ will not make pleasant reading for the government. Chaired by former Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, the committee recommends major changes to official policy to improve public confidence in the immigration system.
Most notably, the Home Affairs report is particularly critical of the government’s net migration target. It says that the gap between the target and reality damages the public’s view of migration ‘because it undermines trust in the state’s ability to control migration’. Long-term aspirations should be replaced by an evidence-based framework that can build credibility.
Only this weekend the newly appointed Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes, confirmed her intention to make good on her government’s net migration pledge, a target strongly supported by Theresa May. Recent quarterly reports have shown falling net migration largely due to fewer EU nationals staying the UK that will be unlikely to push Nokes to change course.
But as I’ve made clear before, the target could be achieved quickly if there was a genuine commitment to it. Nearly half of all migrants are from non-EU countries and there is much greater flexibility on the numbers of visas issued. While excellent students and highly skilled workers bring value rightly acknowledged by the government, it’s also true that their numbers could be slashed if May wanted to. This point is overlooked as well as the evidence base for setting targets more broadly in an opportunity missed.
The Home Affairs Committee recommends improving public confidence, in part, through publishing a new Annual Migration Report. It envisages this could be a fact driven exercise supported across political parties to build a consensus and ‘become the focal point’ for policy discussions.
There is much to applaud in improving the evidence base to inform future debates. But it is difficult to see how producing yet more facts and spreadsheets will bring disparate sides together - not least when there are plenty of statistics available now of variable quality.
Instead, the report should have put greater emphasis on the need for a wider review of the immigration system overall - perhaps on the scale of a Royal Commission - to address the ad hoc, piecemeal fashion that characterise it and have led to its unnecessary complexity and lack of transparency. The status quo is in no one’s interest.
Finally, more should have said about migration-related impact. While a Migration Impacts Fund and its successors would be welcome, they are a sticking plaster. A key concern about migration is the impact it has on employability, housing and other issues. Fewer migrants won’t mean shorter A&E queues when migrants are disproportionately doctors or nurses. Numbers matter, but impact matters more and this should not be lost.
So while there is much in the report to be welcomed, it is not an answer and more of the start of a national conversation that is only just getting off the ground. Let’s hope more get involved. Immigration reform is long overdue, but it will take commitment. I’m unsure the government is ready to make that leap and sadly doubt this report will force its hand.
Thom Brooks is Dean of Durham Law School @thom_brooks