Drop the Target: Theresa May must scrap goal of reducing net migration below 100,000 a year

Campaign launched by The Independent and Open Britain is being supported by MPs across the political spectrum

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Indy Politics

A campaign to persuade the Government to abandon its target to reduce net migration below 100,000 a year is launched today by The Independent and the Open Britain group.

“Drop the Target” has already won the backing of MPs across the political spectrum who believe the goal will never be achieved – even after Britain leaves the EU – and that doing so would damage the UK economy and leave the vulnerable worse off. Latest figures show net migration running at 273,000 a year. 

The promise to cut migration to “tens of thousands” was made by David Cameron at the 2010 general election and repeated in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. Although Theresa May described it as an “ambition” rather than a firm target when she was Home Secretary, she has stuck to it since becoming Prime Minister.

In an open letter, MPs warn that the target is “economically damaging” because the UK needs migrant labour and could be “socially divisive” because it is based on the false premise that migrants are a “negative” for the country.

Open Britain, the successor to the Remain campaign in last year’s referendum which now urges a soft Brexit, and The Independent, are launching a petition to rally public support for ditching the target and to highlight the positive contribution made by immigrants, often vilified in populist politics. The campaign has been endorsed by the Royal College of Midwives, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the Migration Matters Trust. 

In the letter, three former ministers warn the Government that the target is at odds with recent statements by Cabinet ministers suggesting that workers from EU countries will still be needed after Brexit in sectors such as hospitality, financial services, farming, and construction.

There are also fears that frontline workers in social care and the NHS – looking after some of the most vulnerable members of our society – will be hit by the cap.

Conservative MP Anna Soubry, Labour’s Pat McFadden and Norman Lamb from the Liberal Democrats argue that “EU workers are indispensable to the UK workforce” and that it would be “difficult and damaging” to make huge reductions to EU migration after Brexit. They warn that such cuts would fall on migrants in non-protected areas such as manufacturing, energy, science, communications, education and defence. “Such a reduction…would deny businesses the skills and they need and exposes the target as unachievable,” they say.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 1.3 million EU nationals are employed in these non-protected sectors, compared to 699,000 in the areas ministers suggest would be protected.

The three MPs argue that the Government’s goal is incompatible with its recent White Paper on Brexit, which said the country must recognise the valuable contribution of migrants to society and welcome “those with the skills and expertise to make our nation better still”.

Challenging ministers to justify the target, the three MPs pose 10 key questions – including whether the Government will aim for about 50,000 EU and 50,000 non-EU migrants in order to achieve its goal and asking what estimates of skills shortages in specific sectors have been made.

The Government is under pressure to allow the NHS and social care, which employ 140,000 EU workers, to continue to be able to recruit them after Brexit amid signs that EU nationals are leaving the NHS. EU workers make up nearly a quarter of the three million jobs in restaurants, hotels and tourism. The British Hospitality Association has warned of a shortfall of 60,000 workers a year and that it could take 10 years to train enough British workers.

Ms May is expected to retain the target when the Government draws up new rules to replace free movement for EU citizens. Her allies say she regards it as “unfinished business” from her six years at the Home Office. They say dropping the goal would ignore a key lesson from the EU referendum – that the public wants the Government to regain control of migration. However, some ministers admit privately that the target is highly unlikely to be achieved and is being kept mainly for symbolic reasons. Several Cabinet ministers are urging Mrs May to exclude foreign students from the target, which would make it easier to hit. But she believes the move would be seen as “fiddling the figures”.

Responding to the campaign’s launch, the Home Office said: “We want to see net migration fall to sustainable levels – the tens of thousands. The UK needs a fair and controlled immigration policy and that is exactly what this Government will deliver.”

But Ben Wilmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, warned that the idea of an optimal level of net migration is a “total myth”. He said: “Instead of worrying about setting an arbitrary target for net migration, the focus for policy makers should be on designing a flexible immigration system that provides the labour and skills the UK economy will need to grow and compete in the future post-Brexit.”

Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said the NHS had to be open to professionals from across Europe and the world to offer the best care. “An arbitrary net migration cap would limit our ability to do that and inevitably result in a health service with fewer of the best specialists, less able to care for the people of this country. That is surely not what anyone wants. It’s time to drop the target,” she said.

Barbara Roche, a former Labour immigration minister who chairs the Migration Matters Trust, said: “Our immigration system needs to address the skills shortages in the economy and provide us with talent for the future. The target will exacerbate shortages and cut us off from the skilled and experienced people we need to grow our economy. Coupled with the decision to leave the single market, which threatens British jobs and livelihoods, the Government’s approach brings the worst of all worlds.”

Charlotte Holloway, policy director at techUK, which represents 900 technology companies employing about 700,000 people, said: “Nearly 20 per cent of the digital sector’s three million workers were foreign-born, and one third of those from EU countries. Tech companies need solid details to help them plan for the future, which includes knowing that they can continue to attract the international talent they need to grow.”

The ten questions the Government must answer on its plan to cut net migration to the tens of thousands:

1. When will the target be reached and will any changes to current freedom of movement rules be subject to a transitional period?

2. What is the economic rationale for the target and what evidence can be provided to demonstrate it will stimulate economic growth?

3. Given net migration is at present almost evenly split between EU and non-EU migration, will this continue with an aim for approximately 50,000 EU migrants and 50,000 non-EU migrants?

4. In which of the now non-protected sectors of the economy will there be a significant reduction of EU migrants, and what assessment has been made of the impact?

5. What assessment has been made of the impact of the target on the public sector?

6. What assessment has been made of the impact on skills shortages in specific trades and sectors?

7. Will the Government publish all submissions businesses and trade bodies have made regarding the impact of pursuing this target?

8. What skills training measures will be put in place to directly replace lost EU labour?

9. In which regions will the impact of the reduction of EU migrants be felt most acutely, and at what cost?

10. What assessment has been made of the numbers that will be lost due to UK employment growth slowing, versus the numbers that will be lost as a direct consequence of changes in government migration policy?

If you agree, please sign our petition to call on the Government to Drop The Target: 

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