Manifesto Check: Conservatives talk tough but bring nothing new on immigration

Nothing new at border control. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

The Conservatives commitment to controlling immigration has recently been questioned after they failed to meet their net migration target. Now, the party’s election manifesto outlines its immigration policies for the next parliament, and how they would be implemented.

The Conservatives are proposing to keep their “ambition” of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, and to control migration from the European Union by reforming welfare rules. They also claim they will clamp down on illegal immigration and enhance UK border security.

Although the Conservatives talk tough about immigration, with mentions of strengthening borders and improving enforcement, they actually offer few new policies. And those that are new would be ineffective.

Downgraded and futile

In their 2010 manifesto the Conservatives promised to deliver an annual net migration target in the tens of thousands. Indeed, in a speech in 2011, the prime minister vowed to achieve this – “no ifs, no buts”.

The 2015 manifesto keeps the annual net migration figure in the tens of thousands, but downgrades it from the “target” of 2010 to an “ambition”. Why might this be the case? The last set of annual net migration figures stood at 298,000 – three times the target. The decision to downgrade signifies that reducing migration to the extent proposed by the Conservatives is unrealistic. It is also an acknowledgement that Britain has been a country of high net migration for nearly 20 years, regardless of who is in power.

It is important to question where this idea of having an optimal figure for net migration came from and what the tens of thousands number is based on. While it may be the case that lower immigration would take some pressure off services (and even that is not clear), reducing immigration could have serious negative effects too. Indeed, migrants put a lot back into the UK economy through taxes, for instance. So if this figure has not been accurately calculated and analysed, attempts to reduce migration to this level may have significant negative implications for the UK labour market and economy.

Flawed thinking on welfare

In order to work towards this ambition of net migration in the tens of thousands the Conservatives have proposed restrictions for four years on EU migrants’ access to working age benefits, such as tax credits and child benefit. And the manifesto promises to ban EU migrants from claiming jobseeker’s allowance when they become unemployed.

The policy is designed to make sure low-skilled workers don’t end up taking home significantly more in the UK than they would by working at home, thereby deterring them from coming to the UK. But cutting out-of-work benefits is an ineffective way to do this. Migrants come to the UK to work – not to live on benefits. Only a small number of EU migrants are actually claiming welfare benefits in the UK. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of EU working-age benefit claimants doubled from 65,000 to 130,000.

But government data show the majority of claimants are still from outside the EU. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of claimants are British. In 2014, 4.9m working-age benefit claimants – 92.6% of the total – were British while only 131,000, or 2.5%, were EU nationals. The number of recipients from outside of the UK – but not from the EU – was 264,000, or 5%.

As such, it’s hard to imagine how reducing the number of EU migrants receiving British benefits would make a significant difference to the overall welfare bill or, indeed, have any substantial impact on reducing the flows of EU migrants to the UK. It would certainly not reduce net migration to the ambition of tens of thousands.

Nothing new

Perhaps the more feasible of the Conservative’s policies are to clamp down on illegal immigration and enhance UK border security. However, as with the net migration policy, these policies are nothing new and are the adaptation and continuation of existing policies.

The Conservative’s immigration policies are aimed at reducing the number of migrants coming to the UK. On the surface, their manifesto policies look like they would achieve that. But given that their key policy is a downgraded version of its ineffective policy from their 2010 manifesto, and the new policy of reforming welfare rules is likely to prove ineffective, it is hard to see how the Conservative’s will achieve any significant change in immigration.

The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.