The work of the Immigration Directorates (January - June 2014) - Home Affairs Committee Contents

2  A single immigration target

13. In the lead up to the 2010 General Election, Rt Hon David Cameron MP, then Leader of the Opposition, said "We would like to see net immigration in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands". The Prime Minister compared recent levels of migration to the lower levels seen in the 1990s.[20] The Coalition Agreement of 2010 included the following:

    The Government believes that immigration has enriched our culture and strengthened our economy, but that it must be controlled so that people have confidence in the system. We also recognise that to ensure cohesion and protect our public services, we need to introduce a cap on immigration and reduce the number of non-EU immigrants.[21]

14. On 23 November 2010, Rt Hon Theresa May, Home Secretary, made a statement to the House on proposals to limit immigration, in which she said, "We aim to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands, back down to the tens of thousands."[22] In April 2011, the Prime Minister said that he had:

    Made a clear commitment to the British people that we would aim to reduce net migration to the levels we saw in the 1980s and 1990s. Now we are in government, we are on track to meet that aim.[23]

The reference to the target of reducing net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands has been repeated often, for example by James Brokenshire in his speech to Demos in March 2014,[24] and to this Committee on 1 April 2014.[25]


15. In 1997, net migration was 48,000. The chart below shows that net migration has not been below 140,000 in each year since. Reducing net migration is helped by increasing emigration. Emigration from the UK fell from its peak of 427,000 in 2008 to 321,000 in 2012, and has held steady at around 320,000 since. However, since 2012, immigration has increased each year, and in each quarter of 2014. In Q2 2014, net migration stood at 260,000.[26] The biggest annual fall in net migration since 1992 was 51,000 between 2010 and 2011. The next set of quarterly migration statistics, for Q4 2014, will be published at the end of March 2015, days before Parliament is dissolved.

Total immigration, emigration and net migration since 1991

Source: ONS Long-Term International Migration estimates, ONS Long-Term International Migration Estimates, 2 series (LTIM calendar year)

16. When the Prime Minister spoke in April 2011, he pointed out that in the year up to June 2010, net migration from EU nationals was just 27,000, while net migration from nationals of countries outside the EU to the UK totalled 198,000. More than one million people had arrived in the UK after 2004 when the A8 countries joined, but the Prime Minister said transitional controls would be put in place for any new countries joining the EU. He said "When it comes to immigration to our country, it's the numbers from outside the EU that really matter."[27] The majority of the Government's policies on reducing immigration have focussed on reducing the numbers coming from outside the EU: by being more selective about who comes on a work visa, by reducing the number of student visas, addressing family visas such as sham marriages, and by breaking the link between temporary visas for work or study and permanent settlement.[28] The two charts below show the different trends in non-EU migration and EU migration. The non-EU migration chart clearly shows the reduction in non-EU net migration since 2010, in fact non-EU immigration fell by about 78,000 between 2010 and 2013, and non-EU net migration has fallen by near one third.

Total immigration, emigration and net migration for non-EU migrants since 1991

Source: ONS Long-Term International Migration Estimates, 2 series (LTIM calendar year)

17. The second chart show shows EU emigration falling after 2008, while EU immigration has levelled, dipped, and then, from 2012, increased. EU net migration has increased every year since 2009.

Total immigration, emigration and net migration for EU migrants since 1991

Source: ONS Long-Term International Migration Estimates, 2 series (LTIM calendar year)

18. The Government has accepted that reaching the target is becoming more difficult. By 18 November 2014, James Brokenshire described it as an "objective" that is "much more challenging", because of the increase in net migration from the EU.[29] He confirmed that the Government's focus "absolutely remains on reducing migration" to the level pre-1998.[30] On 10 November, the Home Secretary described the aim to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands as a "comment".[31] By 23 November, the Home Secretary told the BBC it was "unlikely" that the target would be met.[32]


19. There are lessons to be learned from the experience of setting a single target for net migration. The paper, Cutting Net Migration to the Tens of Thousands: What exactly does that mean?[33] from the Migration Research Unit at University College London, looked at the implication of managing migration through a single, numerical target and came to four conclusions:

·  First, a focus on a single publicised target can become the priority over other considerations that could be argued are in the national interest, for example attracting post-graduate students who wish to study science, technology, engineering and maths.

·  Second, net migration is only partly determined by the policies of the UK government. The economic performance of southern European countries such as Spain has an effect on the number of people in Spain who might immigrate to the UK, and on the number of people in the UK who might wish to emigrate to Spain.

·  Third, government policies might have different and conflicting aims. For example, the NHS needs skilled staff but more people can add pressure on NHS services.

·  Fourth, a single target figure conveys an image of immigrants as an undesirable mass to be reduced regardless of the consequences. It does not allow for the nuance of debate about costs and benefits of different migrant flows.

20. And a recent report by British Future, How to talk about immigration? said:

    Trust is undermined when the government sets tough targets and fails to meet them. But that isn't a reason to abandon targets altogether. Targets can increase trust if they set out what the government intends to do, offering a tangible measure by which it can be held to account by the public.

The report then sets out three tests that any target should meet in order to rebuild trust:

    It should only focus on the migration that is within the government's power to control; it should be concerned with migration that is in our interest to control […]; and it should be set at a level that can actually be met.[34]

21. The Government made a clear commitment to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. The Government has admitted it is unlikely that the target will be met before the General Election. We agree. The commitment did not make a distinction between EU and non-EU migration, nor allow for emigration falling. Ministers argued that the government did not anticipate either an increase in EU immigration or a fall in emigration. This is not a sufficient explanation for its failure to meet the target, but serves to highlight the difficulty in setting a single headline target that relied upon factors that could not be controlled. No Government of whatever political composition can control the number of people who voluntarily leave the country. This raises questions about future immigration policy. An arbitrary target set by ministers, however well intentioned, only serves to reduce public confidence in the ability of any Government to deliver a future pledge on immigration.

22. Rapid expansion of the country's total population can have far-reaching consequences, both positive and negative, across many aspects of national life. We believe that the Government should continue to be clear about its aspirations for a desirable level of net migration. However, a single figure target is too blunt an instrument for this purpose. The Government also needs to be clear about which factors are and are not within its control, and about which migration flows it wishes to contain, and which it wishes to encourage.

20   David Cameron: net immigration will be capped at tens of thousands, Daily Telegraph, 10 January 2010 Back

21   Coalition Agreement, 2010 Back

22   HC Deb 23 November 2010, col 169.  Back

23  Back

24  Back

25   The work of the Immigration Directorates (October-December 2013), HC 1164 (2013-14), Q 64, 1 April 2014 Back

26   ONS Migration Statistics, Quarterly Report, November 2014, 27 November 2014 Back

27   In full: David Cameron immigration speech, 14 April 2011 Back

28   Theresa May speech on Immigration, 5 November 2010 Back

29   Q 105 Back

30   Q 107 Back

31  Back

32  Back

33   Professor Salt and Dr Dobson, Migration research Unit, UCL, Cutting Net Migration to the Tens of Thousands: What exactly does that mean? November 2013 Back

34   British Future, How to talk about immigration, 2014 Back

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Prepared 19 December 2014