It's time to look beyond the statistics

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The Independent Online

This year will be crucial to the Government's efforts to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 by the end of this parliament. Statistics covering 2013 will be the most recent available for a May 2015 general election, so ministers must act quickly if they are to meet their target.

Data to be published in 2013 seems likely to show that net migration in 2012 fell to around 160,000, and we might expect to see it fall to around 140,000 in 2013.

One reason for this is a decline in student migration: 26 per cent fewer study visas were issued in the year to September 2012 than in the previous year. It seems likely that this decline will continue, but its impact is likely to be short-lived. Most students only stay in the UK for a short time, so reduced immigration today means reduced emigration in two or three years' time, which could mean that net migration will rise again after 2014. And cutting back on foreign students harms the UK economically, as the Government itself recognises.

Aside from the economic consequences, the net migration target carries a political risk, which is that, by promising what it cannot deliver, the Government will feed public disillusionment. If the target is missed (which seems likely), the public will rightly be suspicious of future government promises on immigration. Recent polls show that the public support the Government's aim of reducing immigration, but doubt it will achieve it; and that the Tories seem to be losing support on immigration faster than on other issues.

It is time we moved the debate away from net migration, and focused on issues such as integration; the impacts of migration on housing, work and public services; better co-operation at the European and international levels; and local responses to immigration.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.