David Cameron's weekend promise that the Conservative cap on immigration will bring net migration to Britain down to "the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands" is beginning to look like the dance of the seven veils. Once again the Tory leader has garnered widespread tabloid coverage for his policies on curbing immigration without spelling out how his fixed cap or quota would actually in practice. He also made clear once again that he didn't "support the population going to 70 million" as though it was some kind of clear aim or manifesto commitment being promised by either Labour or the Liberal Democrats to be achieved within the next parliament. But both the immigration cap and the 70 million population figure are based on will-o'-the-wisp calculations that appear to have more to do with a hangover from the "dog-whistle" politics of Michael Howard's Tory party than serious migration policy. The idea of a cap or a limit on immigration sounds straightforward as a soundbite but gets complicated as soon as you look at the detail.
The first point is that Cameron can't limit the number of people who come to live and work in Britain from the rest of the EU without tearing up the basic commitment to the free movement of labour and putting in question the UK's continued membership. At most all he can do is promise to impose restrictions on any new members of the EU – Turkey, Ukraine and Belarus would all like to join – but they could only last a maximum of seven years. Second, as far as immigration from outside Europe is concerned a blanket cap would also have to exclude the 39,000 people a year who come to the UK on spousal visas after marrying British citizens abroad. Or are they to be subject to an arbitrary quota and told to wait until next year? The third category which would also have to be excluded is the number of British citizens who have been living abroad who come back to live in the UK. This category has been growing rapidly and the 85,000 figure for 2008 includes those went to retire in the Spanish costas and now find that the NHS is a more attractive proposition than the Spanish medical system. It also includes those coming from recession-hit Dubai and other places.
Indeed back in 2008 the Home Office estimated that only 20% of possible migrants to Britain would be covered by a cap as it could only be applied to those who came from outside the EU under the points-based system. The vast bulk of those covered would be the highly skilled migrants and overseas students whose presence has been crucial to the economy and the expansion of higher education. The Conservatives have yet to spell out exactly how it would work. At a recent all-party debate on immigration, when a leading city firm, KPMG, asked the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, if a cap would mean they have to cut their global recruitment for specialist posts in London, he confirmed that it could mean that some recruits would be told they have to wait until another year. Net annual migration – the numbers coming to live in Britain minus those who move abroad – is already falling sharply down from 233,000 in 2007 to 163,000 in 2008 and is believed to have fallen even further in 2009 as many Poles went home and the numbers emigrating from Britain continue to rise to a 17-year high of more than 400,000.
The magic "70 million" is based upon a projection by the Office for National Statistics of what would happen by 2029 if the peak of migration to Britain between 2005 and 2008 were sustained every year for the next 20 years. It is not going to happen. Even if it were – and that would mean a new Poland joining the EU every three years – then immigration is not the only factor that determines the UK's population. The birth rate is actually currently more crucial than net migration in determining population growth. So what is David Cameron going to do next to avoid the population hitting 70 million? Impose a Chinese-style policy of one child per family as Alan Johnson has mockingly suggested? If even a seventeen year old can comprehend the many illogical pitfalls of Tory policies, who can truly believe they can triumph in the election on May 6th? If they continue to fanny around on the issue of immigration, can we really trust them on any other important issue, like health or education? I don't see why the inept David Conman doesn't quit now, it's obvious that as a leader he is condescending, corrupt and generally unfit to even pass comment on government.
Whatever the headline, the aim of the declaration is really to call for stringent limits on immigration. It is high immigration which the signatories say will have "a significant impact on our public services, our quality of life and on the nature of our society". While much of the projected population growth is a result, directly or indirectly, of immigration, you have to wonder if the signatories of the declaration are really concerned about population projections as such. If the population was growing fast because many more British-born couples were choosing to have large families, would they have made their intervention? Lord Carey advocates a values-based immigration policy that might produce a higher proportion of Christian immigrants. It is not just numbers of immigrants that are of concern, it seems, it is also types. That aside, the main thrust of the declaration is to call on party leaders to commit in their manifestos to reduce net annual immigration to below 40,000, returning to levels last seen in the early 1990s.
At present, because Britain is in recession, net immigration is flattening out anyway. If the economic recovery is slow, this trend could continue. But setting an arbitrary limit on numbers is, as the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Chris Huhne said at a recent Institute for Public Policy Research debate, akin to "Stalinist state planning". How do we know how many immigrants the UK economy might need in any one year? A cap could be very damaging for businesses needing skilled personnel to compete in the global economy. So going back to the immigration levels of the 1990s might help slow population growth, but at the price of pushing the economy backwards too. Moreover, it is not clear how any future government could keep net immigration below 40,000 a year. The UK now has quite a tight system for the management of immigration, but there are constraints on our ability to control inflows when we are part of an interconnected global economy in which capital, goods and people can move fast. If the Balanced Migration group is serious in its call, it needs to be able to answer some difficult questions.
We have free movement of people within the EU: do the signatories want to stop that? We are signatories to the UN convention on refugees: do they want the UK to withdraw from it? A lot of people arrive as a result of family reunion: do we want to stop settled immigrants being able to bring in their families? Foreign students studying at UK universities account for a substantial proportion of immigrant numbers – but surely this is good for the higher education sector and national prestige? The institute's debate saw the home secretary and his two shadows discussing the sensitive subject of immigration in an open and constructive manner – with the focus on realistic solutions. This is the way to address the sophisticated and complex business of managing migration in the 21st century, not ill thought-through, backward-looking declarations such as this one, which risk stoking up anti-immigrant sentiment.