Sir Andrew Green is Chairman of Migrationwatch UK.
Does the government’s political imperative to get immigration down to acceptable levels conflict with their economic imperative to stimulate economic growth?
For business generally, the answer is a resounding “no”. There are no limits on the transfer of international staff, vital to so many companies based here. Only half of the available work permits (about 20,000 a year) have, so far, been taken up. Special visas for entrepreneurs and investors are unlimited but the take up has been very limited – only 360 entrepreneurs and 300 investors had taken advantage of these routes by last Autumn. Meanwhile, the arrival of 1.5 million business visitors every year suggests that Britain is indeed open for business.
Most of the complaints nowadays are about process, not limits. The process has, indeed, become absurdly bureaucratic. An attempt by Labour to make the issue of visas “transparent and objective” has utterly failed – for the obvious reason that the two million who apply for visas every year have circumstances so diverse that even 800 pages of regulations cannot prescribe the answers. It must be a major task for the new Minister of Immigration to restore to the system the human element sometimes known as common sense.
There is, however, one area where there is a potential policy conflict – international students. Their economic benefit has frequently been exaggerated with the BBC bandying about a figure of £40 billion! Both Migration Watch and Universities UK put the benefit of non EU students at about £5 billion a year. This is equivalent to about 1% of our annual foreign exchange earnings. The number of non-EU students has trebled since 2000. Some universities are now talking about doubling that number again but there is no escaping the fact that this would blow immigration policy out of the water.
The university lobby claim that the vast majority of foreign students return home. The fact is that nobody knows. There have been no exit checks for 14 years. What we do know from a Home Office sample study is that about 20% of those who arrived as students in 2005 were still here legally five years later. The rest were described as “no longer in the system” but that certainly is not evidence that they have actually left the country. David Willets has just announced that the government will, in future, show the flows of students within the net immigration figures. Some better information on the net flow of students can only be welcome.
Meanwhile, here is the rough arithmetic. Non-EU students currently number about 250,000 a year. 20% of that amounts to 50,000 who we already know are likely to stay on. Double your intake and that becomes 100,000 a year. This would wipe out much of the reduction in net migration expected from the reforms that the government has spent the last two years and a great deal of effort implementing. Even if the two elements not under government control – British emigration and EU immigration – continue roughly to cancel out, there is a real danger that we will still be left with the high levels of mass immigration that we have experienced in the last ten years of Labour.
So there is a choice to make. Either we restrain the number of foreign students at around the present level and accept that we will not add some fraction of 1% to our export earnings, or we continue to endure mass immigration with all its impact on public services and on our society. Immigration on this scale would require us to build, in the next 15 years, the equivalent of our eight largest cities outside the capital – that is Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Glasgow and Bristol. Where is the money for that?