Theresa May's announcement was the first serious attempt to check unprecedented immigration for decades.

Comment: May Day for Immigration

By Alp Mehmet
Advisory Council Member, MWUK.
Politics, London, 27 November, 2010

Tuesday 23 November was a big day for Theresa May and Damian Green, her immigration minister. They are to be congratulated for making the most of it. At long last we have a home secretary with guts. To have got such a thorough and wide-ranging package on controlling migration through cabinet given the known opposition was no mean achievement. We owe her.

For 40 years Labour and Conservative home secretaries and their immigration ministers have talked tough on immigration and delivered little. From time to time, they made it a bit more difficult for some people to come here by requiring them to jump over higher hurdles but no home secretary, until now, has ever committed to limiting numbers. The result has been for net immigration to quadruple to 237,000 a year between 1997 and 2007, with 3 million immigrants arriving since 1997.

In 2009, a year when we were in recession and unemployment climbed to around 2.5 million, there was a net inflow of 196 000.

The announcement was a landmark for immigration policy: finally, a serious attempt to check the unprecedented numbers arriving here from outside the EU. And let's not forget that 75% of net foreign immigration is from countries not in the European Economic Area (the EU, plus Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein).

So why is this particular policy such a big deal? Because, without action, immigration will add 7 million to the population of England in the next 24 years - that is 7 times the population of Birmingham. And that is why the Home Secretary had to act. In Theresa May's words, we simply can't go on like this.

The home secretary's statement is of course not the last word on the matter, nor will the proposed cap on some non-EU economic migrants, on its own, bring down immigration to early 1990s levels as the government has promised and as the Tories kept telling us during the general election campaign. It will not. Further measures will be needed, and quickly, if the stated objective is to be achieved by the end of this Parliament. And it's no good now saying that it is the government's aim to bring down annual immigration to tens of thousands. They have promised to do it so they had jolly well better deliver. The electorate, 77% of whom want immigration reduced (50% by a lot), expect it and will not be easily mollified if they are let down.

The home secretary's figures indicated a reduction of about 7,000 from the 2009 Tier 1 (General) and Tier 2 (General) immigration figure. Although, the minimum of £40,000 p.a. salary for intra company transfers should lead to further reductions. There were 22,000 ICTs in 2009, if the higher salary requirement reduces this number to say 15,000 it will mean a reduction of a further 7000 to the overall net migration figure. Add to this dependants, perhaps another 5 000, and the more significant figure of c20, 000 begins to emerge as the potential decrease in the 2009 net figure of 196,000.

However, even with 20,000 fewer people arriving, the government will have to identify a further 80,000, or so, to get down to its target range. Ministers have therefore, quite rightly, proposed next to address bogus students, bogus colleges and sham marriages. They have also hinted that they intend to close down the Tier 1 (Post Study) route which in 2009 allowed 38,000 foreign graduates to stay on after their studies in search of work, in direct competition with UK graduates, 9% of whom are still searching for jobs. In some disciplines the proportion looking for work is even higher, 16% in the case of IT graduates.

One other significant component of the statement, which seems to have been overlooked by most commentators, is the intention to end the link between temporary and permanent migration. In other words, it will no longer be possible to come here with a particular skill to fill a temporary skills gap, stay on and eventually qualify automatically for settlement. In 2009, 62,000 settled in the UK on that basis. Stopping this route to settlement is a major step forward in controlling immigration.

Setting limits to immigration has been seen as the coalition's litmus test. Business, the City, the CBI, certain newspapers and broadcasters all said it couldn't be done; it would harm the recovery and could even lead to the unravelling of the coalition itself. Well, the government listened and came up with credible proposals which took account of genuine concerns. Controlling immigration does not mean no immigration. Theresa May and Damian Green have shown that it is possible to come up with a policy that will not stifle the recovery while keeping out those who are not needed.

With a bit of luck, the way the issue of skilled workers has been addressed will reassure academia that taking a close look at those coming to the UK to study will not mean keeping out all foreign students. It should however lead to a better system for ensuring that those coming here to study will do just that, have the means to look after themselves, complete their studies and leave. That, in east end parlance, will be a result.

Alp Mehmet, MVO is on the Advisory Council of Migration Watch UK.

© Copyright of Alp Mehmet

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