27 August 2011

The Net Migration Trap

Fraser Nelson's analysis of the latest net migration statistics is generally sound:

He correctly identifies that "the inflow to Britain has stayed steady, but the number emigrating from Britain has fallen" (which many other journalists got wrong).

He also states that "Cameron has a snowballs's chance in hell of meeting his target" of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands. That's true too. The immigration reforms brought in by the Coalition will already be deeply damaging on both an economic and humanitarian level. But they don't go far enough to cut net migration to such a low level. ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie has spotted why: "At every turn the Lib Dems have frustrated Damian Green and Theresa May's efforts". I'm appalled by what has been done to the already horrid immigration system left by Labour, but I dread to think how awful it would get if the Tories weren't reined back by the Lib Dems.

However, some of Fraser Nelson's analysis raises more questions than it answers. He decides that "Cameron should only ever have pledged to stem the inflow". This is problematic though, in two ways.

First, it changes your motives for wanting reforms to the system. If you are worried about immigration because of the pressure it puts on public services, infrastructure, the number of jobs available to British workers, these are better dealt with by looking at net migration, as this tracks the change in population size. If you only want to cut immigration, it changes your agenda to the more cultural arguments against immigration. It would be hard to defend such a policy without sounding like Enoch Powell.

Second, the government can only control non-EU immigration. EU immigration, after a lull during the recession, is back to its mid-2000s strength. It could even be that reducing non-EU immigration causes EU immigration. Oops!

Fraser Nelson also uses this odd argument - "Governments of free countries can't stop people emigrating". Why is it a right for people to migrate in one direction but not the other? (Of course what's really happening is that the government is responding to voters' selfish demand that they can move freely whilst insisting other people can't. That's nothing to do with freedom.)

So it would appear the government is trapped by its own net migration target. They even had a golden opportunity to make life much easier for themselves when the Home Affairs Select Committee suggested removing foreign students from the immigration statistics (they are much more like visitors than migrants). The government rejected the offer. Talk about own goals! Fraser Nelson says that Cameron "deserves the flak he'll get". Quite.

But we are where we are. Labour's already tight immigration policy will be further tightened by this government. The reality is that migration is a natural part of an increasingly interconnected world. Our border controls are futile against this overwhelming force. There's evidence that the wasted human potential created by immigration controls is stopping a boost to global GDP of between 67% and 147%. That's $39 trillion at the bottom end. The global economy could really do with that boost right now.

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