Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean. He was Immigration Minister from 2012 to 2014.
One very clear message that the electorate continues to send to politicians is the importance of having a sensible migration policy that controls the levels of immigration into our country. The topic featured prominently during yesterday evening’s leadership election debate between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson.
The Conservative Party has spent nine years and three general elections pledging to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands, yet last year it stood at 253,000 a year. It is clear that some new thinking is required to make our migration policy more effective, and this involves moving beyond our current net migration target.
What was a powerful statement of intent in 2010 now stands as a visible statement of a target that we have never managed to hit. Back then, we reassured ourselves that the last time we were in government, in the 1990s, net migration averaged fewer than 50,000 and never exceeded 100,000 a year.
It was Labour, not the Conservatives, who oversaw a four-fold leap in net migration during their 13 year stint in government, helped along by Tony Blair’s unilateral decision to relinquish free movement controls in 2004. Moreover, because EU net inflows were minimal, a full 88 per cent of net migration was under direct government control. Net migration in the tens of thousands was deliverable, but the target was not the way to achieve it.
Despite being maligned as too tough by the Left, the target has proved weak. It sits above different migration routes and therefore gives no indication of the government’s priorities between different skills, industries or types of migration. It has no teeth with Whitehall departments, allowing the merry-go-round of departmental and business special pleading to continue with no consideration of the trade-offs.
As a result, net migration adds a city the size of Newcastle upon Tyne to the population each year. If you add up cumulative net migration since 2010, a total of 1.4 million more people have come to the UK compared to if we had hit our net migration target every year. It is hardly surprising that a majority of every age group, ethnicity and both Remain and Leave voters support reducing immigration and three quarters of people think reducing immigration to the tens of thousands is the right thing to do.
That is why I support new proposals this morning from the thinktank Onward to replace the target with a long-term Sustainable Immigration Plan – published by the Home Office every year and presented to Parliament. This would force the Government to set out its own plans and forecasts for immigration, across different routes, skills and nationalities and make the trade-offs that are inherent in immigration policy.
But this plan needs teeth. That is why we should go one step further and create a new independent Office for Migration Responsibility – along the lines of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility – to enable Ministers to be held to account on the impact of their own immigration policies. This body would provide the information needed to enable Parliament to hold Ministers’ feet to the fire on their promises on immigration and bring an end to unattainable targets.
We must restore public confidence in immigration policy by not only setting out a well-structured and actionable plan to make sure politicians have the ability to decide which – and how many – people come into the country every year, but by being truly accountable for delivering on it.
For far too long the public have thought, and quite rightly too, that our politicians do not have their hands on the wheel when it comes to immigration policy. This has to change, and as we leave the EU we will regain the ability to shape a migration policy that can control immigration from wherever in the world it comes. I hope that our next Prime Minister – whoever that may be – will welcome this report and embrace these proposals into their government’s agenda.