The Blog

Debate on Immigration Should Be More Than Numbers

Which party is best equipped to address these realities after 7th May? This is a debate that has not been had in this election, but will matter more than the numbers.

Few issues have mattered as much as immigration in the run up to this election. In every debate, each party leader made clear their intentions to reduce net migration. They have been, however, less clear on how they intend to achieve this. While both Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems have in televised debates on migration called for a calm evidence-based approach on migration, cross-party debates have avoided some of the most pertinent facts on migration and left voters without many compelling solutions.

Leaders across the political spectrum have agreed that net migration should be reduced from the latest figure of 298,000, but they diverge on what kinds of migrants should be included in the target, and whether there should be a net migration target at all. They have spent far less time answering to how they will reduce migration at all. And crucially, whether anyone can reduce migration without leaving the EU? Plaid Cymru and UKIP are in firm agreement that this is not possible. The Conservatives, having failed on its promises to lower net migration, have previously made it clear that "freedom of movement is not an absolute." So it has been largely left up to Labour to defend the government's ability to lower migration without an exit from the EU.

In last week's Daily Politics Home Affairs debate, both Yvette Cooper and the Home Secretary Theresa May relied on changing welfare packages as a way of reducing EU migration. These proposals follow the logic that a large proportion of EU migrants arrive in Britain to claim benefits, the distinction David Cameron has previously made between what he called the 'strivers' and 'skivers' in Britain.

However, the evidence shows us that EU migrants tend not to come to Britain to reap the benefits of the welfare state. In the past year, only 2.5% of working age benefit claimants were EU nationals, and only 6.4% of those claiming tax credits were EU migrants. EU migrants are much more likely to be employed than third party nationals, or even UK-born citizens. As opposed to the figures for third party nationals, the employment rate for EU nationals in Britain is 79%, well above the employment rate of UK-born citizens. Thus, dissuading EU migrants from coming to Britain is unlikely to be achieved by removing access to benefits these migrants tend not to even claim. As it turns out, EU migrants are 'strivers.'

It is also worth cautioning that it's not just a rise in EU migration that has driven up net migration figures in recent years. Levels of non-EU net migration are today comparable to that when the Coalition government came into power. Though the UK did experience a drop in non-EU net migration initially under the Coalition due to lower numbers of students, numbers again rose dramatically in the past two years, driven back up by higher levels of family and work-related migration. The reality is that the performance of the UK's economy is one of the main drivers of migration, from the EU or outside the EU.

Inevitably, much of the policy proposed has focused on the category of migrants that is easiest for government to control: international students. All parties agree that fee-paying international students are important to the economy, but they disagree on what kinds of students make the cut - and for the Tories, at what point students become migrants worth curbing. Last week, Theresa May cast the argument that student migration serves as a gateway to permanent migration. This is despite recent data showing that of students that arrived in 2008, only 1% of student migrants received indefinite leave to remain as of 2013, which is consistent with previous years (and this was before post-study work rights were curtailed).

Overall the run-up to the election tomorrow has left voters confused as to which migrants the parties welcome, and which migrants they will curb. Labour's approach to the humanitarian crisis remains unclear, but Yvette Cooper has underlined a commitment to Syrian refugees. Plaid Cymru and Labour agree on the value of foreign-born doctors and nurses (in contrast to UKIP's scaremongering about foreign-born patients flocking to the NHS) but have made no commitments to increasing skilled migration. These circular debates have done little to address the actual impacts of migration on British communities.

Last week, Ed Miliband set out the action Labour will take on immigration within 100 days of assuming office, offering pledges that made up for the lack of firm numbers in the Labour manifesto. But the numbers game has already proven to be misguided, and should be replaced with solutions to address the real pressures of immigration as IPPR have outlined, including pressures on public services and strains on community relations. Which party is best equipped to address these realities after 7th May? This is a debate that has not been had in this election, but will matter more than the numbers.