With Brexit on the horizon, the age-old immigration debate has been a prime focus of the upcoming general election. During both the 2010 and 2015 election campaigns, David Cameron pledged to cut net migration down to the “tens of thousands”, a target viewed by many as overly-ambitious and unrealistic. Even Boris Johnson has cautioned the Prime Minister against reinforcing this promise, “because one doesn’t want to be in a position where you are disappointing people again”. Yet, despite failures to come close to the targets in the past, Theresa May has pledged to stick by her predecessors numbers and “bring net migration down to sustainable levels”.
If these targets are met and retained, what will the impact be for the UK in the long run? An open letter published by a former Labour minister, Conservative minister and Liberal Democrat minister, called for the Prime Minister to scrap the 100,000 target, a target that they believed to ‘not only be economically damaging but also socially divisive’. In particular, the removal of freedom of movement with the EU following Brexit poses many potential problems for the British economy. EU migrants have tended to bring many benefits to UK society, by investing in our public services through taxation and providing valuable contribution to UK workforce. A report carried out by Lisenkova et al concluded that reducing net migration by a significant volume will have negative consequences on the economy. Assuming that net migration is reduced by 50 per cent, the study finds that by 2060 the levels of GDP per person fall by 2.7 per cent. People migrating to the UK are less likely to receive state benefits than UK-born citizens, and have made a net contribution of £25bn to public finances since 2000. Professor Christian Dustmann argued for the fiscal benefits that accompany high levels of migration from the EU in particular, as the migrants “put in considerably more in taxes and contributions than they received in benefits and transfers”. Figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility suggest that if migration was to be reduced, the UK’s fiscal position would be significantly worse in 50 years.
The UK is currently experiencing an ageing population, with life expectancy growing by five hours a day. In 2014, the average age in the UK exceeded 40 for the first time. Migrants coming to the UK tend to be younger and better educated than the overall UK population, helping to decrease the “dependency ratio” that would otherwise be increasing at a worryingly high rate. Restrictions on net migration figures would have formidable consequences on the size of the UK workforce and would threaten the increase of an already high state pension age. Professor Sarah Harper, the director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, argued that “the message from Brexit is if you don’t want immigrants, you’re going to have to work longer”. Harper also noted the negative impact that a decrease in net migration would have on UK birth rates, as women who are living in Britain but are not citizens have higher birth rates than those women who were born in the UK.
Reduced net migration rates threaten to have an inadvertent impact on a variety of British industries, most notably the NHS and social care sectors who employ 140,000 EU workers between them. EU workers also account for nearly a quarter of the three million jobs in restaurants, hotels and tourism, and the British Hospitality Association has warned that it could take 10 years to train enough British workers. Barbara Roche, former immigration minister, has stressed that if the Government sticks to their net migration target then this will “exacerbate shortages and cut us off from the skilled and experienced people we need to grow our economy”.
The determination of the Government to maintain the ‘tens of thousands’ target is “neither a useful tool nor a measure of policy effectiveness”. The target fails to consider that migration goes two ways- the Government has very little influence over the number of people emigrating from the UK, a factor that has a large impact on overall net migration figures. However, it must be noted that maintaining high levels of immigration alone will not solve the demographic problem in the UK. The Government must recognise the need for structural reform, such as re-evaluating retirement ages and increasing labour participation rates, to ensure that the dependency ratio is kept to a manageable level. The Government should not constrain themselves to a desultory net migration target but should instead address this need for structural reform and prioritise an adaptable system that ensures a steady flow of migration that is able to sustain the needs of UK economy and society.