State of the nation: the immigration numbers game

The picture’s still unclear on migration. Gareth Fuller/PA

Welcome to our State of the Nation series, which looks at the coalition government’s progress over the past five years, across a range of key policy areas.

Few issues have defined the past five years of British politics as much as immigration.

Throughout the current parliament, immigration has jousted with the economy and the NHS for top billing. And while the economy dominated public concerns for most of the parliament, for seven out of the ten months since June 2014 immigration has been the most salient issue.

Migration Observatory analysis has shown that the British public has a nuanced view of immigration though. It has different concerns about different migrant groups.

For example, asylum seekers and low-skilled workers elicit higher levels of concern than skilled workers, family migrants and particularly students. Views on immigration also differ slightly around the UK, with slightly lower levels of concern in Scotland and London than in other parts of the UK.

The target

Debates about migration policy since the 2010 election have been dominated by the Conservative party’s net migration target and by a series of measures that were introduced with the aim of reducing migration to the UK.

Net migration – which until relatively recently was a somewhat obscure metric – gained prominence in 2008 with the launch of a cross-party parliamentary group calling for “balanced migration” (essentially, near-zero net migration). Shortly afterwards the Conservative party also began to focus on net migration and promised in their 2010 manifesto to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”, by 2015.

With the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition that emerged from the 2010 election, efforts to reduce net migration began, though it should be noted that the Lib Dems have distanced themselves from the promises made at the time.

Policies were introduced to reduce non-EU migration from the three main routes – work, family and study migration. European migration was not targeted because EU rules require the UK to provide these migrants with extensive rights.

Migration for work

The government brought in significant changes to UK immigration policy.

The first dealt with non-EU skilled work migration. A cap of 20,700 on employer-sponsored skilled migration was introduced in April 2011. The cap formed a major part of the discussion around how the government would reduce net migration.

In reality it has not directly reduced work-based migration so far because the annual number of applications has consistently been less than the limit – though in recent months demand has increased. The skills threshold for work visas was also increased, meaning that employers could sponsor workers for fewer positions than in the past.

Two other work routes – for skilled workers without a job offer and students hoping to stay and work after graduating – were closed. In their place, new visas were introduced to admit smaller numbers of graduate entrepreneurs and people with “exceptional talent”.

About 15,500 new visas had been granted in these two routes in 2010. This number was close to zero by 2014.

Reductions in visas issued in these two categories were were offset by increases in other areas, however. In particular, the number of applications for skilled worker and intra-company transferee visas increased from 39,100 in 2010 to 51,900 in 2014 – a rise of 12,800.

Work visas granted to migrants already living in the UK did fall over the course of the parliament - by 38,400 from 2010 to 2014. This decline was driven by a fall in extensions under the two closed rules (for post-study work and skilled workers without a job offer).

The student route

Rather than attempting to limit numbers of international students directly, the government promised to address “abuse of the immigration system” via student routes, particularly where non-EEA migrants were suspected of coming to the UK with the primary intention of work rather than study.

New measures reduced the numbers of hours international student could work and raised language requirements for students at further education colleges. All education providers sponsoring non-EEA students to come to the UK were also required to apply for “highly trusted sponsor” status. To gain this status, they have to meet criteria that include a high rate of students completing courses and low rates of students having their visas refused.

Between May 2010 and October 2014, 836 education providers lost their licences. Not all of these licences were lost as a result of “abuse” directly identified by the Home Office. Many did not apply for trusted sponsor status, perhaps because they knew they didn’t meet the criteria.

The number of student visas issued to non-EU nationals fell from 254,000 in 2010 to 193,000 in 2012, before rebounding slightly to 200,000 in 2014. A decline in applications for study was driven by lower applications to further education colleges (a decrease of 46,000 applications from 2010 to 2014) and English language schools (a 15,900 decrease). Applications to UK-based higher education institutions, by contrast, increased (by 25,400 over the same period).

A 2011 analysis by the Migration Observatory showed that despite being the largest group of non-EU migrants to the UK at the time, student migrants were the group about which there was the least public concern.

Migration Observatory/Ipsos MORI

Family ties

When the coalition came to power, a person who wished to bring a spouse or other dependent family member to the UK was required to have a post tax income of £5,500 per year excluding housing costs.

From 9 July 2012 this was raised substantially. Now, any non-EU or British nationals applying to bring a non-EEA national partner to the UK is required to have a minimum annual income of £18,600. The required amount increases to £22,400 if they want to bring one child, and each extra child adds a further £2,400 to the requirement.

Migration Observatory analysis of 2014 data shows 43% of working British nationals don’t earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse. This share is higher for groups that tend to have lower incomes, such as women (57% not eligible), young people in their 20s (60%) and ethnic minorities (51%).

Migration Observatory/Labour Force Survey

Targets missed

Despite efforts to reduce migration through all major non-EU routes, the net migration target of less than 100,000 by the end of this parliament has been missed by some distance.

According to the most recent available data, net migration was an estimated 298,000 people during the year ending September 2014. This compares to 244,000 in the year ending June 2010.

Net migration of non-EU citizens was estimated at 196,000 in the year ending June 2010. It fell sharply in 2012 and 2013, but rebounded to 190,000 by the year ending September 2014. The initial decline was driven by lower numbers of students, and the rebound in 2014 was driven by higher levels of family and work-related migration.

On top of that, net migration of EU citizens more than doubled between June 2010 and September 2014, rising from 72,000 to 162,000.

The relative success of the UK economy when compared to other nations, in particular other EU member states, seems to be an important factor in the recent increases.

Emigration of non-British citizens remained broadly stable over the course of the parliament, fluctuating between 175,000 and 210,000 in the four years ending September 2014.

What’s next?

Heading into the 2015 election, there are enormous uncertainties about what the next parliament will mean for migration policies in the UK. Not only is the outcome of the election itself uncertain, with the growth of parties such as UKIP, the Greens and the SNP making it even more difficult than usual to predict which party or combination of parties will hold power after May 7.

There are also several unresolved questions about the policy trajectory under any new government. Will the net migration target be adjusted, modified, or dropped? If numerical targets remain in place, how will the changing economy affect the new government’s ability to meet them? Will UK growth continue to drive both EU and non-EU migration?

And finally, will a referendum on EU membership go ahead? Will the terms of the relationship with Europe be renegotiated, and if so what would be the implications for migration? These questions are likely to play a key role in defining migration policy debates under the next government.

Rob McNeil also contributed to this article