How did migration play out in the 2015 General Election?

Published 22 July 2015 / By Ben Gidley

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The dog that didn’t bark

Rob McNeil, the Observatory’s head of media and communications, introduced the briefing by focusing on how the migration issue played out in the election debate. To some extent, migration was seen as “the dog that didn’t bark” in the election. With UKIP seen as the main beneficiary of the salience of the migration issue, the mainstream parties were less keen to keep it on the agenda.

Rob explained this by showing how trust in political parties on the migration issue has shifted under the Coalition: while in 2010 the Conservatives benefitted from being the public’s most trusted party on the topic, there has been a “convergence of distrust”.

In my view, this is the result of the arms race the mainstream parties played over this issue. In 2012, I wrote that media and politicians’ fixation on the numbers game led to a rhetoric of toughness from both sides of the party divide, as politicians have attempted to demonstrate that they can get a grip on the numbers. [This has driven] a vicious circle, as politicians’ pronouncements on the scale of the problem feed the fears that generate a public desire for tougher controls. This vicious circle has created the situation where the Coalition government has made itself hostage to an almost certainly unattainable policy goal of reducing net migration “to the tens of thousands”.

The quest to reduce net migration

Because of that vicious circle, the Coalition and now Conservative governments’ attempts to meet Cameron’s rash net migration target has been one of the driving forces of immigration policy-making, apparently trumping other policy goals – whether economic rationales for using managed migration to build a knowledge economy or humanitarian responses to war and crisis.

With the pre-2010 Points Based System having reduced non-EU unskilled labour migration to a minimum and Labour’s extreme asylum restrictionism, the 2010 government found very few pathways to reducing net migration. Consequently, government has had to focus on some of the migration categories that not previously featured in the migration debate: family migrants, students and skilled labour migrants. Two of these groups – skilled migrants arriving under Tier 2 of the Points Based System and people who come here to study – were the focus of the remainder of the Migration Observatory briefing.

The Tier 2 cap

In April 2011, to be seen to meet the numbers reduction objective, an annual cap was introduced on Tier 2 migrants, temporary skilled workers from outside the UK. Due to pressure from business, which relies on high skill migration, the cap was set fairly high, and applications remained below the cap. As a result, as Madeleine Sumption showed in the briefing, the cap did not prevent a single person from entering the UK over the course of the last parliament. However, with the economic recovery, migration under this route has steadily increased, and in the year from April 2014 for the first time applications approached the level of the cap. In June 2015, the number of applications exceeded the cap for the first time.

Now, to get numbers down, the government has announced it will further tighten Tier 2 migration – which potentially puts them on collision course with business. Madeleine discussed the implications and trade-offs that will follow from this. Among these are the sectors (such as health and care) where salary is a poor proxy for contribution, so that capping based on income will reduce highly valued forms of skilled migration. Another is the possibility of creating a significant category of “permanently temporary” workers, conditionally accepted into the labour market to meet particular skills needs but denied social rights or access to permanent settlement.

International students and the net-migration target

A second area where the government has sought action is around students, on which Carlos Vargas-Silva presented. Because net migration figures are based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS) estimate of people coming in and going out, students arriving to study and leaving after their course is over are counted, which inflate the total numbers.

Some commentators have argued that students should not be seen as contributors to net migration and that there should not be a policy target to reduce their numbers, as students are temporary, are often not considered “immigrants”, and bring economic benefits. The Migration Observatory has recently published a Commentary on this.

Taking students out of the target would involve calculating a new level of non-student net migration from the IPS. The most obvious way to do this is to calculate net migration of all people who do not arrive as students, by removing students from inflows and removing former students from outflows – which is now possible to do with IPS data. Observatory analysis shows that removing students from the count would have meant the government would have met its net migration target in 2012 and 2013. Even only removing non-EU students would have enabled the government to meet its target in 2012. However, the target would still have been exceeded in 2014, with net migration, including that of students, on the increase.

Family migration

A third area where the government has sought to reduce numbers to meet its target is around family migration. This topic was not covered in the Breakfast Briefing, but I wanted to briefly flag it because it relates to the recent publication of the 2015 edition of Migrant Integration Policy Index, MIPEX, which measures countries’ policy commitment to the integration of legally resident migrants.

The UK’s ranking in MIPEX fell in the new edition, out of the top 10 to a mid-table no.15. The area where it fell mostly dramatically was around family life:

Separated families now face the least 'family-friendly' immigration policies in the developed world: the longest delays and highest income, language and fee levels, one of the few countries with language test abroad and restricted access to benefits.

COMPAS provided most of the data on the UK for the MIPEX update, and I have written on our results at Migrant Pulse, The Conversation and LeftFootForward. I suggested that this risk to the possibility of integration is a direct result of the net migration target and the restrictionist agenda it drives, but that there has not been a policy debate about the desirability of trading off family life between reduced migration.


The fourth area where the government has sought to reduce numbers is migration from elsewhere in the EU. Free movement is a key tenet of EU membership, and thus EU migration is the hardest element of net migration to change. But the government has sought to reduce EU migrants’ social and employment rights in order to reduce flows. At the end of the Observatory briefing, Carlos raised a series of areas where the Observatory is developing analysis now, to be published over the coming months. In terms of numbers and selection:

  • Who could be expected to qualify for admission if they faced the same rules as non-EU nationals?
  • Which sectors would be most affected by any changes?

In terms of in-work benefits:

  • What are the characteristics of families who are claiming in-work benefits?
  • What does this tell us about the impacts of proposed residence requirements on future migrants?

In terms of “demand-reduction” policies:

  • What are the expected effects of policies designed to reduce demand for low-wage labour from overseas without changing the UK-EU relationship?

And in terms of Brits abroad:

  • If EU countries imposed admission restrictions on British citizens in an exit scenario, which groups would be most likely to be affected and how?

Some of these areas, and more, will also feature in next year’s Breakfast Briefings, which will include a series of six briefings starting after the summer, as part of the ESRC’s UK in a changing Europe programme.

The light of evidence

After scheduling the first series of the UK in Europe briefings, I will be stepping down from my role in co-ordinating COMPAS’ Breakfast Briefings, which I have done for five years now, working with the invaluable Ida Persson. Over the five years, we have covered an enormous range of topics, featured some of the top academics from several UK universities, as well as contributors from government, thinktanks and other bodies. We have been kindly hosted by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, who have also presented some of our best briefings.

I started to list some of my personal favourites from the series – Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor on the white working class, Les Back on young migrant lives, Allan Findlay on climate change, Neil Coles and Gill Green on the private rented sector, Matthew Goodwin on the EDL, Peter Neumann on foreign fighters, Dan Silver on working class community, and several by the Home Office’s Jon Simmons – but the list soon began to get too long.

We don’t know the extent to which the presentation of evidence in these briefings has filtered through to decision makers or to the wider public debate. But we do know that continuing to promote an evidence-based conversation about migration remains an urgent task.



The final COMPAS Breakfast Briefing of the 2014-15 series was held earlier in July, featuring Madeleine Sumption, Carlos Vargas-Silva and Rob McNeil of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, exploring what the recent UK elections mean for the migration field.