Ifs and buts: The Tories should forget their impossible immigration pledge and simply take asylum-seekers out of the equation


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The Independent Online

Once more around we go. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has revealed that the number of foreigners joining the UK population has gone up, for the fourth year in a row. Net migration has, in fact, hit an all-time high. And news that a further 330,000 people now live within these borders has – as usual – been met with dismay on the right wing of British politics, and exacerbated a more recent sense within the population that the UK is experiencing a migration crisis.

Such fears are understandable but exaggerated. Large though the total is, it presents far more of a problem for Westminster than it does for the country as a whole.

First of all, it hammers the credibility of the Conservatives. Despite the party’s failure during the Coalition years to reverse the upwards trend in net migration, the Tory election manifesto repeated a pledge to bring the annual number below 100,000. That target appeals to a large proportion of UK voters. But it was never achievable the first time it was announced, and has not become any more so for all the reiteration since. So what remains is the sight of a governing party making a promise to the people, knowing it may not be kept – and then breaking it, year after year. This contributes, as well it might, to the damaging sense that Britain is governed by an out-of-touch elite.

Honesty would be a far better policy for the Tory leadership. They should drop the target forthwith, and acknowledge it was a mistake. The party could instead cite the boost in immigration as proof that their “economic plan” is working: the UK’s economy grew faster in 2014 than any other European nation’s, and our unemployment levels remain low. That is why the number of immigrants from within the EU rose by a quarter in the past year to 269,000.

Unfortunately, the party seems determined to take us around this circle of deception and disappointment again next year. The proposed clampdown on undocumented immigrants may appear tough, but will not affect the net migration total, since the ONS only counts the legal influx. Further slicing student visas and restricting high-skilled workers from non-EU nations may inch us towards achieving an arbitrary target. But it would come at a very real cost to Britain’s economy.

The Conservatives have taken of late to implying that – freed from the Liberal Democrats – they will be able to achieve the kind of EU reforms that would discourage foreigners from crossing the Channel in the first place. This is no more than buck-passing. It may indeed be possible for David Cameron to limit the amount of benefits foreigners can claim. But if that has any impact on the tide it will be small. The vast majority of immigrants come to work. Without leaving the EU there is – frankly – very little the Government can do.

Limiting the free movement of people would require EU treaty change, a horizon that has only retreated from view. Mr Cameron might be better able to persuade his European peers had the UK not shown such a staggering disinclination to help with the crisis in the Mediterranean. By opting out of taking its fair share of refugees earlier this year, the UK slowed progress towards a vitally needed system of international co-operation, and left very few EU diplomats willing to scratch its back in turn.

Part of the Conservative reluctance to lend a hand can be explained by nagging worries about the “no ifs, no buts” promise to reduce net migration. A simple solution presents itself: asylum-seekers should no longer be counted in the ONS total. To treat those fleeing war in Syria the same as Lithuanian builders is, as the shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper  pointed out, preventing Britain from fulfilling its moral duties at a time when they are most in need.

A brave Government would face up to these responsibilities, and be straight with the public about EU migration. Little seen so far suggests we are living under one.