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Net migration, the genie and the bottle: Where next for the net migration target?

27 Feb 2015

Yesterday’s Office for National Statistics data show net migration of 298,000 in the year to September 2014. These were the last net migration numbers before the general election and the final confirmation that the Conservative party commitment to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ by the end of this parliament has not been met.

But the figures also raise larger questions about the future management of migration to the UK. How did net migration become the measure by which the government’s immigration policy is judged? Why has net migration rebounded despite a suite of policies introduced to limit the flows? And now that this single, easy to understand measure of the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of immigration policy has become a mainstay of the public debate, do political parties have any room to adjust their approach on this issue? Or is the statistical genie out of the bottle for good?

Net migration’s rise in the public debate

Before 2010 net migration was a relatively obscure measure for most people other than those actively involved in analysis of migration. A cursory look at the regularity with which it appears in media coverage between 2006 and 2013 shows that the term ‘net migration’ was relatively rarely used until about 2010, when limiting net migration became a Conservative party policy. According to the Migration Observatory’s database of media articles on migration, the frequency with which the term appears in national newspapers increased more than five-fold from 2009 to 2013.

The net migration target was relatively popular with voters in 2010. The target appeared a straightforward way of demonstrating ‘control’ of the immigration system. In a context where trust in the government’s handling of immigration is low, a numerical target provides a transparent, measurable objective that cannot be easily manipulated or spun. After the substantial increase in the foreign-born population over the course of the 2000s, the net migration target also provided an opportunity to slow the pace of change in a clear and measurable way.

Why was the target not met?

From the outset, it was clear that the target would be exceptionally difficult to achieve. As the Migration Observatory has pointed out, the government’s own impact assessments suggested that reductions in non-EU migration would be insufficient to ensure the target was met.

Net migration did fall in the first couple of years of the parliament. In May 2013, net migration data for the year to September 2012 was released showing that net migration had fallen to 153,000 (subsequently revised to 154,000). This represented a decline of about 100,000 compared to net migration levels in 2010.

Since that point, however, the initial declines have been entirely reversed. The official estimate of net migration is now at its highest level since 2005, despite a number of significant measures to try to reduce levels to less than 100,000.

Why was reducing net migration so hard? Three factors contributed to challenge:

  1. The net migration measure contained factors beyond government control. Net migration of EU citizens more than doubled from 72,000 in the year ending June 2010 to 162,000 in the year ending September 2014. If EU net migration had remained at June 2010 levels, net migration in the latest numbers would have been much lower – though still well above the target – at 208,000. British emigration, which also counts towards net migration, fluctuated during this period, creating additional uncertainty.
  2. Policy changes on non-EU migration did not bring down numbers sustainably. Net migration of non-EU citizens fell by 80,000 between the years ending September 2010 and September 2013. This fall was driven primarily by smaller inflows of students – a reduction that has been sustained so far. However, initial declines in non-EU family and work inflows were small (about 20,000 total in the three years to June 2013) and had been reversed by September 2014.
  3. Economic growth facilitated recent rebounds in the numbers. The growth differential between the UK and the rest of Europe appears to have encouraged free movement to the UK. At the same time, rebounds in non-EU family and work flows took place in the absence of notable policy changes, underlining the fact that even non-EU numbers cannot necessarily be predicted precisely and depend to some degree on the number of people who apply and the availability of jobs.

Where next for the net migration target?

The net migration target was not met, but it may nonetheless have a lasting impact on UK migration policy. Now that this numerical objective has been created, it seems likely that any future government will continue to see its immigration policy judged – by the media at least – on the level of net migration.

In January 2015, David Cameron re-asserted his support for the net migration target for the next parliament, although it is not yet clear what numerical targets might appear in party manifestos ahead of the election.

For parties formulating migration policies, this poses a conundrum. Policies on net migration numbers have popular appeal and can be easily communicated to the public. But they also have limitations, reducing highly complex policy choices with wide-ranging impacts throughout society to a single metric.

Immigration is not a monolithic category and the public does not see it as such. For example, a Migration Observatory survey in 2011 highlighted that the group of migrants that contributed the most to net migration at the time – students – were the group about whom the UK public had the lowest levels of concern, while the migrants who were least numerous – asylum seekers – were of the highest concern.

Headline net migration figures also tell us little about other things the public may want, such as successful immigrant integration or the fiscal impacts of immigration. Meanwhile, the simplicity of the target masks difficult tradeoffs inherent in policies to reduce the flows—such as the fact that controls on family migration now mean the majority of female British citizens do not earn enough to marry and bring in a husband from outside the EU.

If the numerical target is here to stay, it is also worth noting that net migration is only one of several ways of measuring the phenomenon, and ignores some aspects of it—like short-term flows that may also have significant consequences for a wide range of public policy issues. In 2011 the Migration Observatory suggested that a more nuanced picture of migration numbers could be created by considering more than one metric. This could include information about levels and changes to:

  • The stock of migrants in the UK
  • Long-term immigration flows
  • Long-term net migration flows
  • Short-term migration flows

These additional measures would not resolve all of the questions set out above. But while the net migration genie is unlikely to return to the bottle, a more nuanced and comprehensive set of indicators could be a useful first step towards seeing net migration for what it is: just one element of the migration debate, not the whole of it.

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