Yesterday’s immigration statistics, the last before the election, make for grim reading. Running at very nearly 300,000 for the year ending last September, net migration is now at its highest level since 2005, and 50,000 higher than when this Government came to office.
These numbers are very disappointing, considering the major efforts made by the Government to get them down. One could argue that they might be even higher, perhaps by about 70,000, without the changes made by Ministers, but the public will undoubtedly see this outcome as a failure. The reputation of the Opposition will hardly fare better since it is well understood that immigration ran out of control on their watch.
Some are saying that it is now time to abandon the concept of a net migration target – claiming that net migration cannot be controlled in a globalised world. Instead, they argue for policies simply to mitigate its effects. In other words, they claim that nothing can be done to control immigration, so we might as well get used to it.
The public will never accept this – and for good reason. The implications of net migration on the present scale are breathtaking. If it is allowed to continue, we will have to build the equivalent of three cities the size of Birmingham in the next five year Parliament. That would be just for starters. In just eight years, we would reach the landmark moment of a 70 million population, followed by 80 million in 25 years and on upwards. Clearly, the sooner we get a grip the better.
It is no answer to claim that immigration is increasing because our economy is recovering. Of course there might be occasions when the economy needs highly skilled workers that it cannot produce or train itself, but there is little benefit if economic migration is mainly comprised of labour prepared to work for low wages because there are few jobs back at home. The migrants themselves benefit, of course, but the existing population do not.
The OECD’s most recent look at the UK economy is clear that increased labour supply has put downward pressure on productivity. The reality is that immigration has a negligible impact on the metric that matters most: GDP per head. What we need is higher productivity, not a higher population. And there are, of course, other things than economics – such as the environment, infrastructure and social cohesion.
So what can be done? The fundamental problem is that, while inflows have risen sharply over the last 16 years, outflows have remained stubbornly low. Some migrants stay on legally, but many are overstaying. The reintroduction of exit checks, due next month, should enable the authorities to know, for the first time in 20 years, who has left and who has not. This should, in turn, permit the identification of overstayers but substantially greater resources will be needed to locate and remove them. Students are a case in point. At present, non-EU students arrive at an average of 150,000 a year – yet just 50,000 a year are leaving.
Yet more laws are not the answer. Effective implementation of the laws we already have is the way forward. Labour’s proposals so far will have only a trivial effect on the numbers – an aspect that they will not even discuss – and the public well remember their record on immigration.
Restoring control over our borders has proved even more difficult than expected, but there is no alternative but to persevere. Continued failure to bring immigration under control will have serious consequences for public confidence in our entire political system.