Net immigration from the EU has fallen to its lowest level in more than five years, at 87,000 in the year to March, the Office for National Statistics said yesterday. Yet a rising number of non-EU migrants means net migration remains almost three times above the upper range of the government’s arbitrary target of reducing numbers to the “tens of thousands”.
The discomfort within the Cabinet is increasingly clear. Sajid Javid, with his liberal instincts, was an unlikely choice to to serve as Home Secretary in a May government, but his particular distaste for limiting immigration is clear from the grimace whenever “tens of thousands” is mentioned in his vicinity. Liam Fox, meanwhile, says it will be reviewed after Brexit.
If the government has backed itself into a corner, it may be offered a back door out by an independent review of the economic impact of migration. We know what any review will find. The overwhelming weight of evidence suggests that immigrants provide a net benefit to the economy. Immigrants are workers; immigrants are the bearers of skills and knowledge from abroad; immigrants are taxpayers; immigrants are the creators of extra demand in the economy.
Much of the government’s current predicament can be traced back to May’s predecessor, David Cameron. He signed up to the “tens of thousands” target despite knowing that it would be harmful to the economy if achieved. The thing is, he never intended to meet it. However, his political game-playing legitimised the arguments of those who do seek to limit immigration.
There may be localised cases where migration has had a negative effect on wages or public services (although this is contested), but this is a failure of government distribution of spending, not an inevitable consequence of immigration.
Meanwhile, unemployment is at four-decade lows and businesses are hoarse from their warnings of skills shortages. As our feature on London's booming tech sector today makes clear, firms look with horror at the idea of further restrictions on bringing workers in from abroad when there are roles to fill.
It has been a drumbeat from business for years: immigration is not a zero sum game, and we can all benefit if it is handled properly. Yet it bears repeating, not least because the government is showing signs of a welcome u-turn: removing the immigration target would be a triumph of good policy. The “tens of thousands” target has been a millstone around the neck of the Tories since it was made official government policy almost by accident. Drop it before it drags back the economy.