Targets for reducing migration: what do we control?

Published 21 June 2016 / By Madeleine Sumption

Back to Articles

Over the past few years, the scale of migration has become increasingly important in the UK’s public debate, fuelled in part by the failure of the migration figures to cooperate with the government’s target of reducing migration to the ‘tens of thousands.’

There are many technical questions about how we measure migration and how migration targets can be constructed. These include whether students could be removed from the target (something that, from a technical perspective, is actually more difficult than it sounds), and whether the data sources that are used to measure migration are capturing it accurately.

However, beyond these technical questions there are some broader conceptual ones. In particular, two observations are worth considering in any effort to target reductions in migration.

The relationship between policies and migration numbers

The first is that the relationship between migration policy and the number of people who migrate is not as straightforward as one might think. Policy clearly plays a crucial role in shaping the number of people who qualify to come to the country or to settle here. However, the same policy does not always lead to the same level of migration over time.

For example, citizens of the longstanding ‘EU-14’ member states like France and Spain have had access to the UK labour market under EU rules for decades. But net migration of EU-14 citizens averaged less than 15,000 from 1997-2003 compared to around 80,000 in 2015. There has been essentially no change in policy but the numbers have greatly increased.

This is not just a feature of the EU. The numbers of non-EU migrants have fluctuated over time and respond not just to policy but also to factors like the strength of the labour market (in the case of workers) or exchange rates (in the case of students deciding where they can afford to study). For a given set of rules, the number of people taking up the opportunity to migrate will not be constant. This does not imply a lack of ‘control’ so much as the lack of a crystal ball.

As an aside: fluctuations such as these are not the only reason the ‘tens of thousands’ target was not met, although they contributed. A more basic reason was that the policies introduced to reduce migration, despite being some of the strictest ones in the developed world—for example in the case of family migration—were not restrictive enough to make the numbers in each migration category add to less than 100,000. The plan was not equal to the sum of its parts.

A choice between controlling numbers and controlling criteria?

The second observation is that the government cannot specify both the criteria and the number of people who will qualify under those criteria. ‘Criteria’ in this context may include policies such as “a non-EU citizen must be in a job paying at least £30,000 to qualify for a work visa” or “UK residents can only bring their spouses to the UK if they earn at least £18,600 per year”—to take some recent examples.

Criteria are at the core of immigration policy because they represent the government’s judgment about what kind of migration should and should not be allowed. Where there are disagreements between parties or politicians on migration policy, they will usually revolve around the criteria—whether there are people who should be allowed to come to the UK who do not qualify, or vice versa.

If policy focuses on numbers rather than criteria, then the criteria will have to be adjusted over time to counteract changes in the underlying numbers of people who want to migrate. This can lead to a situation in which the government does not have full control the criteria themselves. There may therefore be a trade-off between being able to specify the criteria and being able to specify the numbers.

A good example of this dynamic in practice was the system for prioritising Tier 2 worker applications in the event that applications exceeded the 20,700 cap introduced in the last parliament. This system was designed to automatically change the criteria—particularly the pay required for most employer-sponsored non-EU workers—in order to keep numbers at or below a given level. When the cap was first met in June 2015 and the prioritisation mechanism kicked in, the required pay unexpectedly (and, it turned out, temporarily) increased to £46,000. This quickly prompted a review of salary criteria. The Migration Advisory Committee was consulted and ultimately recommended that a threshold of £30,000 (with various trimmings, such as exemptions for some workers and a new employer fee to raise the costs of employing non-EU workers) would make more economic sense.

There is no right answer to how much migration there should be, just as there are legitimate arguments to be made in favour of or against particular criteria. But the inescapable reality is that level of migration cannot be determined independently of the bigger questions about what kind of immigration system we want.