In a dark period of credit downgrades and humiliating by-elections the drop in net migration looked like a glimmer of hope for the coalition. The pledge to bring net migration down to ‘the tens of thousands’ has filtered through from a Conservative Party manifesto to the forefront of immigration policy. After humiliating rises in 2010 the Office for National Statistics revealed that net migration had fallen by a third to 163,000. Immigration Minister Mark Harper stated that “our tough reforms are having an impact in all the right places” and that the government was bringing “immigration under control”. A closer review of the statistics reveals that the celebration is premature.
Net migration is a crude statistic that provides little detail about who is moving to and emigrating from the UK. What details the statistics do provide suggest that policy is not having an impact “in all the right places”; a large decline in student numbers is partly responsible for the fall in migration to the UK. David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, has been working to encourage international students to study in the UK so it is unclear why a reduction in their numbers is seen as a success. The reduction in student numbers is also a temporary fix to the statistical conundrum. Most students stay in the UK for a short period so a reduction in people beginning their studies will decrease the numbers immigrating to the UK in the short term but will also reduce the numbers emigrating from the UK in the future and push net migration up again.
The prospect of future cuts to net migration is also diminished by further analysis of those coming to the UK. Many are from the EU, and as has been examined previously, it is difficult legally and politically to prevent migrants entitled to free movement within the EU from coming to the UK. Major legal restrictions that are in place preventing certain Bulgarian and Romanian nationals from entering the UK will have to be lifted at the end of 2013. Estimates of the number of A2 nationals who will come to the UK are imprecise but it may be that the drop in A8 nationals which contributed to a decline in net migration in this round of net migration statistics will be balanced out by a rise in A2 migrants next year.
Far from being a cause for celebration, this latest round of statistics demonstrates that driving down the numbers of those coming to the UK can have an adverse effect on other government policies. The difficulties encountered in reaching the target, may be looked upon as demonstrating the futility of having net migration statistics driving forward immigration policy.