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Tim Finch: A Progressive Conservative Policy on Migration

Picture 1 Scroll to the bottom for Tim Finch's response to your comments

Tim Finch is chief policy adviser on migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Here, in the form of an open strategy memo, he proposes how the Conservative Party should approach the issue of migration.

To: George Osborne, Election Strategy Team

Subject: A Progressive Conservative Policy on Migration


Migration may be politically toxic, but it is economically essential. The polls show clearly and consistently that the public is hostile to immigration. So it is clearly not sensible to put a progressive migration policy front and centre of a bid for power. But every reputable economist will tell you that a reasonably open and flexible approach to migratory movements has helped drive the UK economy in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Migration is a complex global phenomenon that requires a sophisticated policy response.  Too often the UK debate around migration has been simplistic and divisive, with groups positioning themselves as ‘pro’ or ‘anti’, and having synthetic, but corrosive, slanging matches. The UK will need migrants in the future, and anyway cannot isolate itself from global movements of people.  In this context, we need a more rational, more consensual debate on migration to produce sensible, effective and humane policies.

Changing the terms of the migration debate provides an opportunity for the Conservatives. Politically it would smart for the Tories to take a position on immigration that shows the mainstream media and swing voters that any nagging doubt they may still have about the Conservatives being the ‘Nasty Party’ is outdated. People don’t tend to vote for a checklist of policies, it’s more about feeling or image. But totemic policy stances – and a new approach to migration would be such a stance - contribute hugely to the overall impression voters have of a party. 


Make migration work to the UK’s advantage. There is no need for a massive overhaul of the system that has evolved under the current government. The Points-based approach to managed migration, allied to new border and control measures, should, given time, allow the UK to attract in the skilled labour it needs, while limiting flows of other migrants. 

We have an international duty to refugees, but that aside there is nothing wrong with picking and choosing the migrants we want and need. Free movement of labour within the EU might appear to cut across this approach, but the surging inflows since 2004 are likely to be a short term phenomenon.

Migration, properly handled, will play an important role in helping the economic recovery.  The task will be to articulate clearly that migrants fill skills gaps which bring direct financial benefits - and this will help get the economy back to growth more rapidly.

Make smart use of the existing controls and management systems.  This is not to argue for a lax, open door approach.  Every government should know who is coming and going into and out of the country, and should be controlling flows.  No minister should be in the position where they can’t answer questions about the number of people who are here and why. Migration control is not just about numbers, however; it’s about proper management of numbers.  Immigration will ebb and flow, the key is to be on top of those flows, not submerged by them. 

The new quasi-autonomous UK Borders Agency (UKBA) is doing a decent job after the chaos of the ‘not fit for purpose’ years – it should be allowed to get on with that job without more upheaval and change.  Tight controls and management systems are now in place. They need to bed in.  It might be politically tempting, but in public policy terms there are no grounds for introducing even tighter controls on immigration.

Being bold with the backlog. Although the Labour Government has taken steps to deal with the mess it got into over immigration, it is still struggling to deal with the legacy of the years when the Home Office was simply overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge. One of the difficulties current ministers have faced is that they daren’t take some sensible steps to deal with the backlog issues for fear of looking ‘soft’.

If the Conservatives were to come to power they would not face this problem. The forward-looking stand of Boris Johnson on the issue of earned regularisation for illegal immigrants points the way. There really is no prospect of dealing with this issue through mass deportations – the cost, we calculate, would be £12 billion.

On the other hand, sooner or later, our government has to have a better policy than turning a blind eye to a population which could be up to a million strong. In order to concentrate energies on making migration policy work in the future, an incoming government should use its honeymoon period to take a bold stop to clear the backlog.

Meeting the objections

This approach could look soft. There is an absolute need for processes and rules, clearly and consistently applied. Borders and controls should be used to ensure that only those who have a right to be in the UK can come in and stay here. A credible, clearly enforced returns policy is needed – though there are no quick fixes in this area and return only makes sense if it is sustainable. However, the adoption of ‘shut the door’, ‘one in/one out’ type policies would make this country poorer. The Little England that would result from such an approach wouldn’t just be culturally and socially impoverished, it would economically backward as well.

Our country will become overcrowded. Migration is a two way street – people come and go. The last ten or fifteen years have seen such high levels of net migration into the UK that it is easy to assume that the traffic is all one way.  But latest figures show that building policy on the assumption that immigration will keep surging ahead may be misplaced. The number of EU nationals leaving the UK doubled in the last year, and overall non British emigration rose by 30 per cent.  The numbers of Poles and others arriving to work has dropped dramatically – down by more than a third. Although we have seen very high net migration in the last decade, as recently as the early nineties this country was experiencing net emigration.

The UK in recession doesn’t need migrants. If London and other cities are to continue to thrive as world centres of business, finance, culture and sport; if our industries are to retain their competitive edge; and if important sectors are to fill skills gaps skills: we will need migrants – and in fairly large numbers. The UK is an international trading nation; more than most countries we should realise that our prosperity involves global movements of capital, goods and, yes, people.  Open economies thrive because they remain open.

Our public services can’t cope with extra demands. Most incoming migrants are young and single. In common with British born young people, they tend not to be users of education, social security, older people’s care and only light users of health services. There are strains on services and infrastructures in some areas, but the way to deal with them is to make sure that extra help can be provided to these local authorities more quickly than now. Overall, migrants are not generally a huge burden on the state.

There will be a backlash in the media. Labour has proved there is no political mileage in talking tough on immigration. It is never tough enough for the extremists, who are fundamentally hostile to all foreign migration, and it creates a cycle of fear among the wider electorate. Much the best strategy is to ensure that the business of managing immigration is carried out efficiently with the minimum of fuss. A Home Secretary or Immigration Minister who is in the headlines is invariably one who is in deep trouble.

Saturday 29th August update

Tim Finch has read the various comments made by readers and posts this response:

I am rejoining this debate rather belatedly, so apologies for that, but it was fascinating to see the responses of the Conservative Home readership. It was particularly encouraging that by and large the responses were reasoned and thoroughly argued – even when the aim was to demolish my thesis.

Clearly, migration inspires strong feelings – it’s right that it should because it has been one of the big issues of the Labour years.  But as I hoped to make clear in the memo, that is all the more reason for trying to develop policies and practices that make sense – economically and socially – and which can restore public confidence.  I still believe it is not overly naive to look forward to a more constructive debate on migration in the next few years, with the aim of trying to develop some sort of consensus - at least around key principles. Throughout the exchanges - even at their most heated - it is sometimes hard to detect what we are actually arguing about. The extreme viewpoints aside, do we not all believe now in the need for managed and controlled migration to benefit the UK economy and fulfil humanitarian obligations?

There are of course negative impacts from migration – I think I acknowledged that.  But it is the case that the evidence shows that the economic benefits outweigh the downsides – at least at the macro level.  The House of Lords report was much quoted against this view.  But it has to be said that it has been widely discredited.  I’ve heard a senior government economist describe it as a “shoddy piece of work.”  That said, more research is needed (we hope to do some ourselves) on how migration impacts on our poorest communities.

On what do with illegal immigrants, well, this is one of the most difficult issues in the field.  No one in their right mind thinks amnesty or regularisation is the best policy solution, all I’m saying – and Boris Johnson too – is that it’s the best available.  It has of course to be accompanied by measures to ensure that irregularity doesn’t grow again – that is difficult to do, but I do think that the immigration regime we have in place now is pretty tough and is beginning to bite. From the other side of the argument (not much reflected in the exchanges) there is in fact a strong case for arguing that migrants’ rights have been severely eroded by Labour’s supposedly “lax” policies.


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