Immigration, public opinion and cuts

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The Home Office is expected to make further cuts to immigration targets and take decisions about whether to recruit more staff

We are seven months out from the next general election, and reports at Westminster suggest that the two main parties are gearing up for a race to the bottom.

Hardly one day goes by without some exaggerated claim being made.

Take the “£1,000m tax return” for instance, which appears on the anti-Conservative Daily Mail website every time the party is exposed as being out of touch with ordinary people.

Or take the most worrying “must-read” story being circulated by some MPs: they want to “cut immigration by 75%”.

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That wasn’t just any 75%.

At least seven different groups are projecting the figure – from the Migration Advisory Committee to IT experts to organisations who study low-paid jobs.

But I’m here to tell you that even if 75% is the lowest achievable total, it can still be an important figure.

It could show that parliament is doing something about what the public believes is unacceptable.

Much would depend on the way that government had to find the money to implement any cut.

The cost of trying to decide whether you get the new extra five visa seats to EU countries the government wants to expand.

And for assessing what temporary foreign workers should be paid, and whether there should be a cap on overall immigration.

If 75% is the number, then 25% in both cases will mean the government taking more decisions.

That can’t be everyone – there is nobody who wants 100% of immigration to be curbed and above all, there isn’t any consensus about what does and doesn’t need to be cut.

But this 75% would be a small start, and it could allow MPs to claim credit for actually doing something to make the immigration system more workable, humane and accountable.

I’m not trying to sound Pollyannaish.

I recognise that Theresa May’s party cannot turn any figures into a doomsday scenario. It has a hell of a lot more to lose if this were to play out.

But I don’t believe the claim that immigration numbers are already too high.

In fact, what we do know is that almost exactly the same number of people entered Britain last year as left – not an easy figure to calculate, as migrants use different methods to cross borders.

Also, unlike some of the figures used to try to make that 75% figure about immigration, this is a realistic estimate that could be used by parliamentarians.

We know that annual immigration has remained constant in the three years since this government came to power, and it only came down when the government did something rather extraordinary.

The decision to place annual caps on asylum and immigration.

Number 10 has always said that is the cost of doing the job of defending the rule of law and ensuring that we can have control of our borders.

In my view, this was the best and most sensible response.

No other policy, including control over our borders and immigration policy, was on offer.

So what would it take to actually cut the government’s immigration target? It seems impossible.

It would be politically almost impossible to make that call.

But even if we are stuck with the target, there is still a chance of making some actionable changes.

It would require the government to make decisions about some key areas and to draw up targets for enforcement of them.

For instance, would we be better off deciding what qualifications people who come to the UK should have?

If we do not want most people to leave the country after a decade, we would need to put limits on those qualifications.

If you think there should be a limit on the number of temporary workers we think should come to this country, then we should have a target for reducing that target.

But to back those measures the government would need to explain in detail what we are trying to achieve, what the challenge is and what the solution is.

That might well require the government to spend lots of time telling the public what it is doing, and why it is doing it.

And again, you are not talking about unanimity about what action is needed here.

But it is worth testing how far this approach can go before we start to react negatively – whether that is by voting to block the government if it decides to cut immigration numbers by a big 75%.

In the same way that there can be a consensus on the need to address immigration in all its aspects, we might find a consensus on how it should be

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