There is a growing confusion over the government’s target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands by 2015 – at least, its chief adviser on immigration issues seems to think so.
As I reported last month, the 21 per cent increase in net migration over the past year, taking the total to 239,000 – more than twice the level the home office needs to reach in four years’ time – must have made uncomfortable reading for the department’s number crunchers.
However, speaking at London’s Global Immigration Conference yesterday, Professor David Metcalf, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, suggested that the firm target of less than 100,000 was actually more of an “aspiration” for the government. He told the lawyers at the International Bar Association event:
There are certain tensions within the coalition about whether [the tens of thousands] is a firm target or an aspiration.
This is not the first time that such tension has been mooted. David Cameron, prime minister, promised in a major immigration speech in April this year:
Net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year, not the hundreds of thousands every year that we have seen over the last decade.
Only a week later, this was contradicted by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, who told the BBC:
You’ve got to remember on immigration, lots of people come in and out of this country, not least through the European Union, who you can’t just numerically control, so I don’t think it’s a numbers game.
It is not Government policy to pursue a fixed numerical target.
When the FT questioned Theresa May, the home secretary, about this during an interview in May, this was her response:
Our aim is to get [net migration] down to the tens of thousands.
All clear? I thought not. But even if the politicians are obfuscating the issue, Professor Metcalf is relatively open about the fact that achieving the target is a tall order. He told the conference on Thursday:
It’s very important to understand that the government has set this challenging target but it doesn’t have the levers to control all the gross inflows or outflows. Presently, hitting the target is being made more difficult by the fact that the British outflow is falling and the EU inflow is rising.
When outlining the barriers the government was facing, he admitted that it was a very significant reduction to get down to the aspirational target of under 100,000 by the end of the parliament. The fact that the MAC chair believes the tens of thousands figure to be an aspiration rather than a fixed goal backs up what I’ve been told recently by other organisations involved in the immigration debate: that reaching the target has become a matter of “if” rather than “when”.
In the short-term, Professor Metcalf certainly has his work cut out. Quite apart from the vexed issue of advising the home office on which policies will make the numbers add up, the committee also has to produce an in-depth economic assessment on the effects of non-European migration on the labour market, social and public services by the end of November.
“That’s very much a hospital pass given to the MAC,” he complained on Thursday.