Immigration will remain at the heart of political debate in 2012. Economic downturns tend to heighten concerns about migrants competing for jobs and depressing wages, and spending cuts tend to sharpen resentment over migrants claiming benefits or adding to pressure on public services. The latest e-petition to garner a hundred thousand signatures will get its reward of a day in parliament, debating the effects of immigration on Britain’s growing population. And while Labour and the Liberal Democrats might be reluctant to talk about immigration, the Tory leadership clearly see it as useful in handling those on the right who are unhappy with life in coalition — commentators as well as backbench MPs.
This is also the year in which the Conservatives will move past the half-way mark of a parliament in which they have committed to cut net immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’. The difficulty of meeting this target was reinforced when the official figures for 2010 were published six weeks ago, showing net migration at 252,000, the highest on record.
IPPR’s review of 2011 and look ahead to 2012, published today, estimates a fall in net migration in 2011, and forecasts a further fall in 2012 — but reckons that this will not be enough to put the government on track to hit its target. (The report also makes detailed predictions about policy and numbers in different categories of immigration, including work, students, family, and asylum, and also emigration.)
IPPR is pleased to see the immigration minister Damian Green endorsing our projections today. But in seizing on the headline 2012 reduction as a vindication of the government’s policies, he is being a little rash. We agree that the changes they are making, in particular to the rules on work and student visas, will contribute to a significant reduction in immigration from outside the EU — of around ten per cent this year — but the bigger factor is the state of the economy, as our report makes clear. We are in the perverse situation where the Conservatives’ only real hope of hitting their target in 2015 is if a prolonged economic downturn continues to make Britain less attractive as a destination and induce more migrants already here to leave — a scenario that surely even the most hawkish immigration minister wouldn't wish for.
If the economy does start to pick up in late 2012 or 2013, what are the implications? First, there is the risk of yet more public disillusionment, if another government is seen to have broken its promises over immigration. Second, the new policy framework could act as a drag on growth. The framework is designed to generate reductions across all categories of immigration, but inevitably the largest reductions end up being made in the categories which are easiest to control, namely immigration for work and study, even though those are the most economically valuable — and the least unpopular. As I argued here back in October, while there is strong public support for the overall objective of reducing immigration, there is no real support for cutting numbers of skilled migrant workers or overseas students.
So far, the ‘cap’ on skilled migrant workers has not really hampered employers, but the state of the labour market means it hasn’t been properly tested yet. And, when it comes to overseas students, in aiming to cut total numbers — rather than simply targeting those who are abusing the system — the government is closing off one of the few opportunities for growth in 2012, as well as in the years to follow.
Matt Cavanagh is an associate director at IPPR.