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What’s in Mark Harper’s immigration in-tray?

7 September 2012

11:00 AM

7 September 2012

11:00 AM

As an ambitious young MP rewarded with promotion to Immigration Minister, Mark Harper could be forgiven for viewing the job with mixed emotions. Traditionally one of the most senior ministerial jobs outside Cabinet, it will certainly guarantee him plenty of exposure, but not always for the right reasons.

His first and biggest problem is the target the Conservatives have set themselves, to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 a year. The latest figures remain more than double this level, despite a series of controversial reforms, and few observers think the target can be met before the next election. The very idea of ‘net immigration’ doesn’t anyhow seem to capture what voters are worried about, despite being endlessly repeated by ministers, the media, and anti-immigration pressure groups. There are also problems with the data used for the target: it is based on a survey, adequate for measuring long term trends, but pretty hopeless for measuring absolute numbers in any given year. Finally, too many elements of ‘net immigration’ are beyond ministers’ control: there is little they can do about immigration from the EU, for example, or about emigration, either of recent migrants or British citizens.

The clumsiness of the target brings two main risks. The first is simple: the government will fail to meet it, and what started as a bold pledge will end up as another case of politicians promising what they can’t deliver. Rather than taking the heat out of the debate, as the Conservatives say they want, it could leave voters feeling even more disillusioned. This is always a problem, but especially so in the current climate, and especially on an issue as emotive as immigration.

The second risk is that Mr Harper will fall into the same trap as his predecessor Damian Green, and end up cutting the numbers of student visas, or even skilled work visas, purely because these are the only elements of the target he can control – and despite the fact that they are the least controversial kinds of immigration, and the most valuable to our economy.

The Prime Minister told his new team this week that every department must redouble their focus on the government’s overriding objective: returning to growth. Harper should take him at his word, and start by seeking permission to exclude overseas students from the net immigration target – on the basis that the current approach is damaging one of the few sectors of our economy with good prospects for growth and export earnings, while making relatively little difference to long-term net immigration, since most overseas students go home anyway. IPPR has made this case many times, so there is no need to rehearse it here, other than to point out that the major downside – the political risk that in redefining the target, the government will be accused of fiddling the figures – is mitigated by the sheer number and range of voices who have now come out in favour of this move, from the Financial Times and Observer to the Telegraph, and now the BIS Select Committee, in a new report this week.

If redefining the target proves a step too far, Harper should at least try to shift the spotlight away from it. His predecessor became locked in a negative narrative, fighting criticism over the lack of progress on the target by agreeing that things are bad, but arguing they were even worse under the previous government – and on one occasion going so far as accusing the country of being ‘addicted’ to immigration. Half way through a parliament, it would be wise for political as well as policy reasons to try out other ways of talking about immigration trends, ways which might reassure people rather than stoking their fears. For example, if we look at ‘non-British immigration excluding students’, which arguably captures voters’ concerns more than ‘net immigration’, the trend is rather different from what anyone might expect from listening to Damian Green over the last couple of years:

Finding a new way of talking about overall numbers could give Harper the space to emphasise the other objectives of the government’s immigration policies, which are in danger of being lost. One example is the objective of making the immigration system more rigorous and effective at selecting the kind of migrants the country needs. This objective is both sound and popular, and has the advantage, unlike the net migration target, of cohering with the government’s economic objectives. The Home Office’s approach to licensing universities and colleges would be more effective and less needlessly controversial if it was more clearly grounded in the desire to make the system more rigorous, rather than cutting numbers to try to hit an arbitrary target. Universities who failed to discharge their responsibilities adequately could be sanctioned by reducing the number of overseas students they can sponsor next year – perhaps allowing other universities to expand by the same amount – rather than just pulling the plug on existing overseas students mid-course, with no attempt to sort those who are genuine from those who are not.

In relation to work visas, there is no urgent need to remove the cap – not because it is a good policy (it isn’t), but because economic conditions, and the exception made for intra-company transfers, mean it hasn’t actually had much effect. But it could still be a drag on growth when the economy does start to pick up. All the evidence suggests that the kind of immigrants who are covered by the cap – skilled workers from outside the EU – make a disproportionately high contribution to our skill levels in strategic sectors, including aerospace, pharmaceuticals, telecoms, engineering, electronics, and computing, as well as financial services. Rather than competing with workers already here, they tend to fill skills gaps, and enable companies to build teams with complementary qualities, including languages and knowledge of crucial overseas markets.

Besides reviewing the links between immigration policy and economic policy, Harper should also remember the operational side of the job – rather neglected by his predecessor, judging by the report into last summer’s border security lapses. An early tour of the UKBA estate, not just the obligatory airport photo-calls, but private meetings with front line staff, might reassure them that ministers will listen if they have genuine concerns, and that if something goes wrong, they won’t be hung out to dry. The agency is not in crisis, despite its image in the media. But there are worrying signs, both around the pace of staff cuts – implemented before the technology to replace them has properly bedded in – and backlogs of casework starting to build up again in the asylum system and for foreign national prisoners awaiting deportation.

Focusing on the operational side of the job might also lead Harper to consider a second narrative shift, around border security. As in most areas of public policy, this is not just ‘common sense’, as the Conservatives suggested in opposition, but involves a series of complex choices and trade-offs, including a three-way trade-off between security, spending, and queue times. By the time Damian Green tried to adopt this more mature narrative it was too late: he was in the middle of a scandal, and he had ridden too many bandwagons in the past to ask for any quarter from the opposition now. Mr Harper starts with a clean sheet, and it would be a real achievement if he could rebuild some elements of a cross-party approach to border security issues, including a tacit agreement to resist the cheap shot every time something goes wrong.

A successful Immigration Minister must reassure the public that immigration is being managed for the benefit of the country, building confidence in the system rather than stoking people’s fears, while avoiding excessive negative effects in other areas. This is perfectly achievable, but only if Mark Harper is brave enough to strike out with a new approach, both to the policy framework he has inherited, and to the language he uses to communicate it.

Matt Cavanagh is a visiting fellow at IPPR.

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