Leading article: A migration cap that is as costly as it is counter-productive

Once elected, ministers should admit the errors of opposition and not perpetuate them in office

Related Topics

Populist promises made in opposition have a habit of becoming the stubborn problems of government. This is especially true for coalition governments, and the Conservative Party is finding out the hard way, having made an ill-conceived campaign pledge to limit the number of non-EU migrants entering Britain to work.

In her Commons statement yesterday, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced a cap of 21,700 on the number of skilled workers from outside the EU. It included an exemption for "exceptional talent", for those earning £24,000 but staying for less than a year, and for those posted to Britain by their overseas employers – provided they earn £40,000 and stay for longer than a year. The figure is tighter than the 43,700 recommended by the independent Migration Advisory Committee.

The cap was intended to help bring annual net migration down "from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands". But the ambition articulated by David Cameron before the election cannot be achieved by placing an arbitrary ceiling on a small proportion of new arrivals. Non-EU migration accounts for only 12 per cent of the total. Moreover, business leaders argue that any cap will damage Britain's economy.

Of non-EU arrivals to Britain, roughly a fifth are joining relatives, a fifth are skilled workers, and the remainder are students. Blocking close family reunions is immoral and may, in many instances, be illegal. Blocking skilled workers is bad economics. As for students, the ban on unskilled non-EU workers effective from 2008 did lead to a rise in student arrivals and, with it, abuses. These should be halted. But stopping other lucrative additions to a sector worth nearly £40bn to our economy is more than faulty economics: it risks damaging the international standing of British universities.

The exemptions reflect co-operation within the Coalition and represent a significant victory for Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. Ms May, who was the first to call Conservatives "the nasty party", had been expected to outline her measures with a rather nasty speech; but Mr Cable and Nick Clegg intervened, demanding that some of the restrictions be eased.

Business leaders have lobbied the Government for weeks, arguing they cannot generate a private sector recovery if they are hindered from hiring skilled foreigners. Yet, though they will take some satisfaction from yesterday's announcement, and though Liberal Democrats will present it as a pragmatic compromise born of economic necessity, there is a danger that the broader lesson of this episode is lost.

This is the first time that a British government has set a policy objective for net migration. That will please the hawks. But the cap announced yesterday does not deliver what David Cameron suggested that it would do. The brunt of the visa reductions, as Ms May made clear yesterday, will be borne by non-EU students. Mr Cameron will plead that his retreat has been forced on him by the reality of Coalition government; but it was dishonourable of the Conservatives to make a promise which they must have known could never be delivered.

As it is, the ceiling announced yesterday is not as bad as it might have been. But it will be costly, and it risks stoking resentment. Yes, immigration can cause social strains but the solution is to transfer funds to deprived areas and improve the skills of the indigenous workforce, not to criminalise the aspirations of foreigners who want to work here. Once elected, ministers would do better to admit the errors of opposition than perpetuate them in office. Any policy that is both ineffective and self-defeating is not worth pursuing. The immigration cap should be scrapped.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam