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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Election catch-up: I’m not saying the Ed stone is bad – it is so terrible I am lost for words

John Rentoul

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living