David Cameron has repeatedly committed his government to reducing net immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. This week the cabinet will decide how to go about it. These are long term decisions that are vital to the future of our country. This is not about money. Economic crises come and go. Demographic changes come and stay.
The key question is, in essence, very simple. Are the government serious about getting immigration down or will they fold in the face of special pleading from employers and academics together with Liberal Democrat opposition to any significant measures? Theresa May’s first speech on the subject last Friday was encouraging. It set out, in broad outline, the measures that are needed but can she get it through cabinet?
The issue runs much wider than the cap on economic migration which recently has hogged the headlines and provided a convenient target for all those lawyers and employers who do very nicely out of present levels of immigration. Recently, they seem to have made all the running but, while the concerns of special interest groups must be addressed, wider considerations must also be brought to bear. The issue is about the whole future of our society. Labour's three million immigrants and the chaos in which they have left the immigration system have set in train an escalator for our population and for the immigrant element within it.
The previous government tried to brush aside the impact of immigration on population, claiming that official projections are not forecasts. Of course not. But to leave it at that would be just indolence. There are only three factors, birth, death and migration. The official assumptions on the first two are very cautious so, if immigration is allowed to continue at present levels, it is a racing certainty that our population will reach 70 million in 20 years time and 80 million in about 50 years.
We are already one of the most crowded countries of Europe, especially in the South. And we are now seeing the impact of a rapidly growing population on many aspects of our national life – for example, maternity units with mothers giving birth in waiting rooms and primary schools in some areas which are full to bursting. The pressure will move on to secondary schools and then housing. The official projections for new households show that, over the next 25 years, nearly 40% will be a result of immigration. Meanwhile, whole sections of some of our cities have become unrecognisable as part of England.
This is the legacy of Blair and Brown. And it is why immigration was raised on almost every doorstep during the last election. It remains a matter of huge concern to the public, despite persistent efforts by the BBC to ignore it.
The public have certainly not forgotten the Conservative promise to tackle immigration. It is this promise that will shortly be put to the test. The devil is in the detail but the broad outlines are not rocket science. Recent Home Office research has found that only about a quarter of those coming in search of a skilled job actually find one. This route should be capped at a low level. As for the scheme that allows all foreign graduates of 600 institutions to stay on looking for work, whatever the level of their degree, this should be suspended – certainly for as long as British graduates face 9% unemployment.
Then there are the two main routes for those specifically requested by employers. Intra-company transfers are being abused by largely Indian firms who use them to post IT workers to Britain on a salary of only about £24,000. Just three firms have accounted for 10,000 permits in one year. The minimum salary should be raised to £50,000 a year so that the scheme is returned to its original purpose of permitting senior executives in international companies to move freely to Britain. Once this is done it will not matter that the government has excluded them from the cap, especially as, entering by this route, they no longer acquire the right to reside.
This leaves the ordinary work permits for skilled workers. It would, of course, be foolish to impede our economic recovery by denying access to skilled workers who are really needed. This route needs refining and capping but with a system of administrative review for cases of critical importance to particular firms.
Economic migration is only part of the picture. There will have to be action to crack down on bogus colleges, bogus students, sham marriages and illegal overstayers. All that will follow in the coming months but success is vital to the Conservative Party as well as to our country. To face the electorate next time with a story of failure on this of all issues would be a huge handicap. What the Prime Minister must show this week is that he intends to battle, not bottle.