Theresa May must be happy about today’s immigration statistics, so who isn’t?
After the shock of last spring’s migration statistics which showed a near-record high in net migration to the UK, the Tory frontbench will be breathing a sigh of relief after today’s figures from the Office of National Statistics were released. At last it has something to offer up to a sceptical public to show that its recent restrictions on migrant workers, family migration and foreign students seem to be taking effect.
Today’s ONS stats show that, for the year ending March 2012, net migration declined by 24% from the previous year – the largest drop for four years in this stubborn figure. This was largely due to significant cuts in non-EEA immigration under all the major areas of policy attention in recent months. Both work and student visas declined by around 9% during that period. International student numbers dropped by 20,000, with a particular decline in students from India and Bangladesh. The drop in net migration was also boosted by a 5% increase in the number of people leaving the UK.
Future statistics over the coming year or two are likely to show further drops in net migration levels. Further visa data released by the Home Office today tells a more recent – and dramatic – story of declining non-EEA migration to the UK. This data runs up to September this year, and shows that student visa grants in the year up to then have dropped by over a quarter (26%) compared to the previous year. Family migration visas have also dropped by 15%, presumably related to changes including the introduction of the new income threshold for sponsoring spouses and partners. We can expect further declines in the visa grants for non-EEA nationals in the months to come as the impacts of tough policies continue to roll out.
But what might be a good news story for the home secretary and her team will be received rather differently in the back corridors of Westminster and beyond. The messages coming from many sides are that government’s hell-for-leather pursuit of lower immigration levels at national level is generating economic and social ripples across the UK.
Confirmation that significant numbers of foreign students are being barred from entry is, in particular, likely to be received with horror. Yesterday’s meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration heard cross-party agreement between Nadhim Zahawi MP (Con) and Paul Blomfield MP (Lab) about the damaging economic consequences of slashing foreign student numbers in the UK. Echoing comments by London’s mayor Boris Johnson’s earlier this week, their view is that party politics should not stand in the way of a more pragmatic approach which promotes the long term growth of the education sector by continuing to attract foreign students, not turn them away. Three parliamentary select committees, as well as various frontbenchers within the coalition government, have reportedly all recently critiqued the government’s migration strategy as regards international students, adding fuel to campaigns to take students out of the net migration target rather than continue in the current vein.
Critically, the APPG meeting also heard that the problems with the government’s punitive approach towards international students are not limited to economic costs. Representatives from the NUS and Coventry Students Union told MPs at the APPG meeting that many foreign students are increasingly hounded as a result of their colleges and universities intensive monitoring of their whereabouts. They called for a wider reform of the system in relation to international students if the government wants its colleges and universities to remain attractive in competitive global markets into the future. This, coupled with today’s report by John Vine into the UKBA failure to properly process information about international students, should act as an important reminder that there are ongoing issues with the operation of in-country immigration controls as well as with those applying to come here.
All this is to say that statistics are clearly not the only thing that counts when judging immigration management - this time the story behind the immigration figures seems to suggest that short-term goals are being pursued which are likely to carry significant long-term costs.