Immigration is a policy area that, for reasons I don’t need to explain to Conservative Home readers, excites more emotion than analysis. Everyone (except the Economist) agrees that net migration at the levels we were seeing under Labour is too high. But it is not enough simply to emit screams of pain and anger. We need to take each immigration route we can control, work out who we want and who we don’t want, and take action.
This Government started work immediately. The first route we dealt with was work visas. Within weeks of coming into office we had imposed a temporary cap on visas for skilled workers (unskilled workers are not allowed in), and from April 2011 the permanent cap came in. Huge vested interests predicted disaster for British business when this happened. In practice the limit has not been reached in any month since April and the system is working well to bring the numbers down. Economic migration will fall by a fifth compared with 2009.
Next we moved to the student route, which accounts for two thirds of non-EU migration. This year we have introduced a proper system of accreditation to tackle substandard colleges, tough new rules on English language, new restrictions on bringing dependants and an end to post-study work rights for all but the very brightest. These measures will be fully implemented by 2012, and are estimated to cut student visas by 70,000 a year, with a further reduction of 20,000 a year for dependents.
Now we are moving on the family route, where we are in the middle of a consultation on how to cut the widespread abuses of this route. We are looking at language tests, extending the length of time before settlement can be granted (and therefore access to benefits gained) and a range of other measures. We will be announcing our conclusions in the autumn.
At the same time we are getting better at removing those who have no right to be here. In the first half of this year we removed more than 25,000 people.
I hope this proves that the accusation that nothing has been done since the Election is a complete fallacy. A huge amount has been done but it will inevitably take time to remove the effects of more than ten years of wrong-headed policies.
Two other fallacies are worth mentioning. The contribution to yesterday’s net migration figure of 239,000 made by UK and EU movements was just 21,000. So acting on immigration from outside the EU is effective. The second is the thought that because the figures for December 2010 (which is what we saw yesterday) were much too high, nothing is possible over the course of the whole Parliament.
This is particularly absurd. Immigration reform is as difficult and important as the welfare and education reform programmes of the Government. No one expects the full effect of any of these programmes to be seen six months after the Government was elected.
There are two simplistic, and wrong, attitudes to immigration. The first, which the last Government held for too long, was that the more the better. The second is that we should stop it all now. The more intelligent response is to bring the numbers down to sustainable levels while we continue to attract the very best students and skilled workers to enhance our economy and society. We will not reach that ideal balance immediately, but we have already taken big and significant steps towards it, and we will see the benefits in the years ahead.
When we have net migration back to the tens of thousands a year, as it was before 1997, many of the social stresses and strains we have seen in recent years will be eased. This will be particularly helpful to the more disadvantaged members of society from all ethnic backgrounds, and is a prime example of One Nation Conservatism in action.