One of the odd decisions that the Tories made before the election was to pursue their net migration target, in spite of the fact that they cannot meet it. Today’s figures underline that, with net migration at 318,000 last year, which is the highest total for a decade. The Office for National Statistics said this represented a ‘statistically significant’ rise of more than 109,000 from 2013.
Knowing that these figures were coming and wouldn’t be a particularly comfortable experience — more comfortable, though, than had they been published during the election campaign — the Conservatives are setting out their own plans to crack down on the things that annoy people about immigration more than numbers. David Cameron is speaking today and announcing a new immigration bill in the Queen’s Speech, which will introduce a new criminal offence of illegal working. The legislation will make ‘Britain a less attractive place to come and work illegally’.
But this doesn’t make much difference to net migration statistics, and so this morning Theresa May (who is now talking about the net migration target as though it is serious, again, rather than a ‘comment’ as she did before the election), was left arguing that the reason the party had kept the target was that the Tories wanted to renegotiate freedom of movement:
‘Can we just, you have said there and you said earlier that, implied that there was no way that we could do anything about people coming in from the European Union. Of course, there are things we can do and have done in terms of tightening up on people’s access to benefits, people who come here looking for a job, restricting the length of time that they can be here without a job, and requiring them to be here for a period of time before they are able to claim Job Seeker's allowance. What we have also set out is that as a government we want to renegotiate the relationship with Europe, and as part of that free movement – this issue of people being able to move around Europe freely - is one of the issues we want to look at. One of the questions within that is further tightening on welfare benefits. So for example, for in-work benefits, people would have to be here for a period of time, would have to live here for four years before they could claim that.’
The Conservatives have had some positive noises on the overall renegotiation over the past few days. But freedom of movement is still a big ask — in the same way as setting a net migration target when you can’t currently do much to meet it is a big ask.