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

Share
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
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Media Sales - £36,000 OTE

£28000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Recruitment Genius: C# .NET Developer / Application Support - Junior

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This business has an industry r...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Planner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A young person in the UK is now twice as likely to be poor as a pensioner  

Britain is no country for the young – in jobs, income or housing

Ben Chu
LaGuardia Airport: a relic from a different, gentler age  

New York's LaGuardia Airport to be rebuilt: It could become the best gateway to America

Simon Calder
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash