Author and Professor of Law & Government, Durham Law School.
Friday, May 26, 2023
As long-term figures hits 1 million, Tories show they can't - or won't - control immigration
The Conservative Party fought three general elections promising to slash immigration to the tens of thousands. Today’s net migration statistics show that after thirteen years in government the Conservatives have failed utterly to achieve this.
The Office for National Statistics confirmed this morning that net migration for 2022 is at a new all-time record high of 606,000. This is more than twice its peak of about 270,000 in 2007 under Labour and nearly seven times what the Tories pledged when entering Downing Street in 2010.
This news leaves the government’s credibility in tatters. The ONS data shows that long-term immigration to the UK reached a high of 1.2 million in 2022. Almost 80% of this was from non-EU nationals. These are citizens whose work, family and study visas have always been under the full control of the government long before David Cameron announced there would be a referendum on the UK’s EU membership.
While the government claimed it got Brexit done and that this ensured full control of the borders, it has not brought numbers down as was repeatedly promised. The key reason for this is the Conservatives have not made good on what they said. It is not a matter of lacking powers to act, as four in five long-term arrivals are non-EU national anyway.
Nearly thirty percent of long-term immigration is from work visas, mainly in areas like highly skilled visas for occupation shortages like in health and social care. At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Keir Starmer was bang to rights to say that the current work visa system set up by the Conservatives has undercut wages and a failure to properly invest in education and skills here today so we can fill the skills gaps exposed on the shortage occupancy list in the medium to longer term. Instead, the government has allowed the UK to become dependent on overseas workers coming here. This dependence has meant the government has never enacted a cap on work visas as it needs more and more to come support the flagging economy.
The largest migrant group are overseas students. They play a clear role in providing significant economic benefit to the wider economy, as well as the institutions where they are enrolled. As student fees have remained frozen, there has been an increasing dependence as well on overseas students and the extra funding support they bring with them. (I know. I was an international student.)
The government has claimed that they will take action by enacting a new policy of preventing overseas students from bringing dependents, but the effect will not be significant and won’t make an impact for some time. It does not affect postgraduate research students and not in place until January 2024. This is after most students will have started their studies. There will likely be little impact until the end of 2025 – and long after a general election. Moreover, the Home Secretary’s ability to do this did not require Brexit nor any of the laws passed by the Tories since 2010. Like in the Wizard of Oz, Suella Braverman had the powers all along. She simply didn’t know or want to use them.
Today’s figures leave the Conservative Party’s reputation for any competence on immigration in complete disarray. For over a decade, the public has heard increasingly tough talk from Go Home vans as part of a hostile environment to removal flights to Rwanda as part of a plan to stop small boats. These gimmicks have made headlines, but no more. The evidence is none of this nonsense on stilts was ever required to deliver the big net migration cuts promised. After years of new laws, regulations and speeches, the Conservatives could act but chose not to.
The problem is primarily with their promises. These have been made and accepted by the public in good faith. Today, this is exposed for the shambles it is and, in my view, represents an existential threat to the government. It has lost control over immigration and soon control altogether.
Trust matters in public life. Labour has a once in a generation opportunity to fill this gaping void – and elsewhere I have offered a vision for how Keir Starmer might achieve this. The public deserves better. It’s time we had a government that had the competence and compassion to deliver what it promises.