Brexit doesn’t mean Theresa May will reach her net migration target

Thom Brooks

Public concern about controls on immigration helped fuel support for the Leave campaign. Brexit would enable the government to reach its net migration target at last, or so the Prime Minister has argued. Her white paper, which was already in tatters a week after publication, makes clear that without Brexit we’ll continue to see increasing migration. This hypocrisy must be called out. 

This target of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands from the hundreds of thousands has proved elusive. Since 2010, the net total has reached record highs of over three hundred thousand. Such numbers have led many to agree with Theresa May that bringing this down requires an urgent change like a break from the European Union.

In the latest official figures, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that net migration is at 280,000, which finds it has become “broadly stable” since 2015. However, it is difficult to compare this new data with past reports because the ONS has revised how it estimates net migration. This was made necessary when it discovered it was mistakenly thought 95% of students overstayed, but did not. Wrong by tens of thousands.

Such a poor grasp of numbers about such an important issue will do little to win public confidence. But if the public expects Brexit to make it more likely the government will meet its net migration target, they will be even more disappointed.

Consider four facts. The first is that most people migrating to Britain are not from the EU. More than half come from outside the EU as workers, family members or students. All will require a visa to live, work or study in the UK. This is fully in the government’s control. If the government wanted to bring this to zero, it could.

The second fact is there are good reasons for which the government has refused to reduce non-EU migration: clear benefits to the economy, supporting the NHS and recognising the importance of family reunification. Although each is subjected to a complex rule book over 2,000 pages long, non-EU migrants coming to work or study grew by 46,000 over the last year and it’s the cause of rising overall migration last year. So while the government could reduce this to nothing and has a manifesto commitment to cut migration by about two-thirds, it enables the number to rise through ignorance or wilful inaction.

Another fact is the government would not hit its net migration target today, even if EU migration ground to a halt. Non-EU net migration now makes up most of those who come to Britain and stay.

Immigration brings many benefits, but it has also been the subject of much misunderstanding. The government’s arbitrarily set net migration target will neither satisfy those who want more nor less of it, and they would be well advised to find an alternative.

These three facts about the existing powers of government that it chooses not to exercise with immigration raises several questions. If the target is not being met when it can be done now, there is little reason to think it will do so post-Brexit. This is because trade deals might require a special arrangement for trading goods and services, increasing migration too. If the government is not using its full powers to control immigration as it says it wants to, this pours doubt on how far they might go after March.

The government does us all a great disservice when it make promises that cannot or will not be delivered. The Tories’ net migration target is sadly the latest, but surely not the last, such mistake. The public has high expectations for what Brexit will deliver. If these are not met, there will surely be consequences at the ballot box. 

Let me highlight a fourth, more alarming, fact. We’re seeing a consistently high Brexodus effect that no one predicted. I do not refer to the decreasing numbers of EU citizens coming to Britain and increasing numbers leaving – this steady decline was anticipated and continues unabated.

I’m talking about the Brexodus of Brits from Britain: it is a fact that more British citizens are choosing to leave this country than stay in each and every quarterly report for well over a year now. The whole point of a net migration target and, for some, voting for Brexit was to see immigration cut substantially to please the British public. It’s becoming clear this appears to have an unintended consequence of making Britain a place more Brits want to leave forging their careers, lives and raising families elsewhere. May’s hostile environment might have intended to discourage migration, but it might be encouraging UK citizens to emigrate instead.

This Brexodus of Brits is substantial. The net migration figures would have been 50,000 higher and over 300,000 without it. When the government is relying on British citizens leaving the country to reduce net migration in order to win public confidence, the game is well and truly up.

The Tories should drop a net migration target they have no intention of meeting Brexit or no Brexit. They should not claim their white paper will enable a cut they are already refusing to enact, for good reason. The sooner this target is scrapped – alongside burying the hostile environment – the better. Not only to honour the diverse, multicultural society we already have, but any immigration policy that explicitly or implicitly leads to more citizens wanting to leave the country to make a new home elsewhere isn’t working. A Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn is best placed to get this right. We need it urgently as serious damage is being done in the meantime.

Thom Brooks is Dean of Durham Law School.


More from LabourList