From the TUC

Migration: doing no harm?

28 Jun 2010, by in International

The Government’s announcement today that they are “capping” migration from outside the EU at 24,000 before next April looks like being tough on immigration. But it’s probably truer to say that they’re simply giving an estimate of what migration would be likely to be anyway. At least that suggests they have decided to adopt the “do no harm” philosophy of Google, rather than anything worse! However, there could still be problems ahead.

All weekend, there have been stories about Government Ministers (and Tory ones, not the more pro-migration Liberal Denocrats) lobbying Home Secretary Theresa May to rein in the dogs on immigration, because they are getting cold feet about the impact on business and the appalling impact on universities already reeling from cuts. Hence universities minister David Willets’ concern about the loss of income that would result from restricting overseas student numbers – who provide huge subsidies to university budgets, as well as establishing crucial links for the future.

And for weeks, employers and their organisations have been lobbying behind the scenes to allow for exemptions, flexibilities, loopholes and so on to allow them to continue to employ whoever they want, from wherever they come.

Today’s announcement certainly sounds tough – a 5% cut in the number of people allowed to come to Britain to work from outside the EU. But the numbers of immigrants to the UK are falling anyway as a result of tougher restrictions imposed by the last Labour Government and the generally poor economic climate (surprisingly, people migrate to places where there are jobs, rather than ones where unemployment is likely to rise!) So a 5% reduction is probably about what you’d expect anyway – and of course it doesn’t affect migration from other parts of the European Union, although that’s likely to fall as well, unless Greek emigration increases sharply!

As with the last Labour Government, the Conservatives seem to be aiming to sound tough without actually doing much. So pressures on public housing and other services will remain or worsen (as a result of cuts in provision outpacing reductions in migration) and there will be no change to the potential undercutting of terms and conditions (again, likely to sharpen as jobs are cut in the public services, although competition at the lower end of the labour market is going to derive more from unemployed public sector workers flooding the labour market rather than migrants). That undercutting is best prevented by legal requirements on equal treatment and fair employment – the national minimum wage has acted as an absolute floor – or by stronger trade unions.

The devil will of course be in the detail. If we do reach the cap, what will happen if a key medical specialism is left short-staffed? And will a cap on legal migration have any effect on illegal migration (experience around the world suggests that the measures needed to impose a cap do indeed divert people into illegal migration – sometimes regardless of whether the cap is actually reached).