The British people understand full well that some types of immigration are very much in their interest. The idea that last year’s vote to leave the European Union represented an overwhelming mandate to prevent any new arrivals to this country, regardless of who they are and the reason for their move, is one of the great fallacies of Brexit.
As we report today, the British public strongly supports international students coming to the UK. A ComRes opinion poll for British universities suggests that a large majority of the people realise that foreign students are good for the British economy, and that our universities are one of the nation’s greatest economic and cultural assets. Perhaps most strikingly, the survey suggests that three quarters of of the population agree that foreign students should be allowed to work in the UK for a time after they have graduated, rather than returning immediately to their home country.
This is quite at odds with the rhetoric and policies of Theresa May, the Home Office Prime Minister, who sees Brexit as the opportunity to make up for her failure to reduce net immigration over the past six years. Her problem, as The Independent has repeatedly pointed out, is that the Government of which she was a member did nothing to reduce immigration from outside the EU, which it could have done while the UK was a member of the EU. It did not do so because it was not in the national interest, and it will not be in the national interest when the UK has left the EU.
To those Brexiteers who believe that leaving the EU “finally” gives Britain the chance to meet the target of restricting net immigration to 100,000 a year, we have to point out that the reason the target was not met for six years is that it is a foolish objective, not that it was impossible. That is why The Independent is campaigning to Drop the Target: because it is an arbitrary number, and trying to achieve it would do only add to the damage to the British economy caused by restricting our trade with the EU 27.
Of course, Ms May is right to clamp down on bogus colleges and student visa scams – but she should be doing that anyway, not to meet her own arbitrary target.
To date, the Prime Minister has refused to exclude students from the target, which would be the first step towards a rational immigration policy, and which would command much popular support, as today’s poll suggests. She makes the point that, if students settle here after university, they are immigrants and should be counted as such. She is right, but they should be counted when they settle and not when they first arrive – otherwise the target has the perverse effect of preventing Britain’s universities from recruiting fee-paying students from among the best in the world.
Students are the most obvious example of what is wrong with the net immigration target, but while it would make sense to exclude students from it, we argue that the target itself should be dropped. It makes no sense to think of a number and then to try to do enough damage to our economy to meet it. The labour market figures published yesterday by the Office for National Statistics confirm that only about a quarter of workers in Britain from other EU countries are classified as in low-skilled jobs. It is simply not the case that the Government’s target can be reached by locking EU immigrants out of low-skilled occupations. To hit the target the Government will have to cause serious labour shortages in skilled work, including in the NHS, that is likely to lower the standard of living for everyone in Britain.
Excluding students from the target would be a small step in the right direction, but all it would do would be to draw attention to the wider folly of the target.
Britain should design a post-Brexit immigration policy to serve the national interest, not a round number. The Government should Drop the Target.