PM has the power to address migration concerns without resorting to EU scare tactics

Cameron should tend his own garden before criticising the EU. Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Before the 2010 General Election, David Cameron promised to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” and not hundreds of thousands.

This pledge is in ruins now that net migration has hit levels even higher than before Cameron’s government took office.

Immigration issues are a top concern for UK voters. And Cameron’s speech on migration at a JCB factory in Staffordshire was meant to address these concerns head-on.

There were several acknowledgements of the many valuable contributions that migrants bring to the UK. He also acknowledged that many migrants typically stay for only a year or two in the UK before leaving the country.

But Cameron also claimed that some voters have been made to feel guilty for raising worries about migration and that this is wrong – even if they themselves have not been directly affected by migration.

The substance

The prime minister referred back to reforms introduced under his government, such as preventing illegal immigrants from opening bank accounts or acquiring a driving licence. But he also claimed that non-EU migrants have to “pass an English test”, leaving out the many caveats that can be found in this policy.

Migrants from a list of more than a dozen countries are exempt from the test, as are any migrants with a degree and migrants over 65 years old. In fact, a significant number of non-EU migrants to the UK – including people like me from the United States – are not required to take this test (I am now a British citizen).

One of the new policies Cameron announced relates to requiring EU migrants to have a job offer before arriving in the UK. EU job seekers who fail to find work within six months would be removed from the country. The aspiration is unclear in both cases. For the latter, it is difficult to see how these people will be identified, especially since EU citizens don’t need to have their passport stamped noting the date they entered the UK.

A second new policy is that EU migrants have to live in the UK for four years before they can claim benefits. This may play well with many voters at first glance, but it obscures an important issue. A rule like this would affect not only migrants from Europe but also UK citizens living abroad who return to the UK. If they needed to come home for a period of time to care for relatives, for example, they could find themselves locked out of access to various forms of support until they met these requirements, too.

Cameron’s biggest problem – and one that he has openly acknowledged – is that his plans could only happen if the EU treaty were changed. He has set out a wish list for EU reform that other members may not give him.

Cameron is offering policies that are not currently within his power. He is trying to appease disaffected voters as the election approaches but he runs the risk of agitating them further by breaking his promise – just as he did on immigration targets.

There are many options that are in Cameron’s control, but these seemed entirely absent from his speech in Staffordshire. He is capable – if not willing – to reinstate the Migration Impacts Fund that his government abolished in 2010, for example.

This short-lived initiative was aimed at offering funding to public services to help them deal with the costs associated with increased numbers of migrants. He could reform the rules for residency requirements or citizenship. He could close unnecessary English language test loopholes.

Instead of talking up the problems that come as part of being a member of the EU, Westminster – and Cameron in particular – should focus much more on delivering policies within its control. The government has the ability to address the concerns of voters to some degree without implying nuclear options. Speeches like Cameron’s may contribute even further to their apathy in May 2015.