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Time for EU to restrict free movement

8 min read

Writing exclusively for PoliticsHome's Central Lobby, the Home Secretary welcomes new immigration figures and sets out Government plans to do all it can to discourage immigration from the EU.

Immigration has undoubtedly brought many benefits to Britain. Controlled immigration can fill skills shortages and make our economy more competitive, while individual immigrants have made hugely positive contributions to our national way of life. But controlled immigration is very different to mass immigration, and that is why this Government has set itself the task of restoring order to our system.

We set ourselves the target of reducing annual net migration from the hundreds of thousands we saw under Labour to the more sustainable tens of thousands that we saw in the decade before. We chose a net migration target – as opposed to an outright immigration target – because of the reasons we want to control immigration. Those reasons are the effect of immigration on social cohesion, on infrastructure and public services, and on jobs and wages.

First, social cohesion. The debate around immigration often focuses on its economic costs and benefits, but the social consequences are often ignored. The point is quite simple. It takes time to establish the personal relationships, the family ties, the social bonds that turn the place where you live into a real community, but the pace of change brought by mass immigration makes those things impossible to achieve.

Second, infrastructure and public services. It seems obvious that immigration should have an impact on things like the availability and cost of housing, the transport system, the National Health Service or the number of school places, but these effects are difficult to measure and are often disputed. However, one area in which we can be certain mass immigration has had an effect is housing, because more than one third of all new housing demand in Britain is caused by immigration.

Third, jobs and wages. We all know that the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy – that there is a fixed number of jobs to be divided up and handed round – is wrong, but so too is the ‘zero displacement’ fallacy. The Migration Advisory Committee found that the truth is, not surprisingly somewhere in the middle. Between 1995 and 2010, they found an associated displacement of 160,000 British workers. For every additional one hundred immigrants, they estimated that 23 British workers would not be employed.

There is evidence, too, that immigration puts a downward pressure on wages. A series of academic studies show that immigration can increase wages for the better-off, but for those on lower wages, it means more workers competing for a limited number of low-skilled jobs. The result is lower wages – and the people who lose out are working-class families, as well as ethnic minority communities and recent immigrants themselves.

The latest immigration statistics – published this morning – show the achievements we have made, but they also show the challenges we still face. Those statistics show that in the year to June 2013, annual net migration stood at 182,000. This is a reduction of nearly a third since its peak in 2010, when it stood at 255,000. But it represents an unwelcome increase in net migration in the last year – and it is still too high. So it is important to look in detail at the statistics to see why the successive falls in net migration appear to have stopped.

The first thing to say is where the Government can control net migration – and this is limited to immigration from outside the European Union – our policies are working. Net migration from outside the EU continues to fall sharply. It is down from 218,000 since its peak in 2010, and from 172,000 last year, to 140,000 this year. And it is driven by consecutive reductions in gross immigration. Last year, there were nearly 100,000 fewer people immigrating to the UK than in 2010.

We have restricted economic migration from outside the EU, and economic immigration is down. We have tightened the rules for family visas, and family immigration is down – by more than one fifth. We have ended the industrial-scale abuse of the student visa system we saw under the last government, closed down hundreds of bogus colleges, and student immigration is down – by almost a third. Under Labour, ‘students’ were turning up at Heathrow unable to answer basic questions in English or even give simple details about their course – those days are now gone. And the latest visa statistics – which run ahead of the net migration statistics – show these figures should continue to fall.

These reductions in immigration mean hard-working British people are getting a fairer crack of the whip. Under Labour, in the five years to December 2008, more than ninety per cent of the increase in employment was accounted for by foreign nationals. But under this Government – thanks to our measures to control immigration and reform welfare – two thirds of the increase in employment is accounted for by British people.

These are significant policy successes, so why do the recent falls in net migration appear to have stalled? The statistics show that the answer is because emigration has fallen dramatically, while European net migration has increased significantly. Emigration – not just of British people but of foreign people who have come here legally – is now at its lowest point since 2001. And European net migration is up by almost half in the last year, from 72,000 to 106,000. This significant increase in European net migration is fuelled by net migration not just from Eastern Europe but the older European member states too, particularly Spain. This suggests that the economic problems faced by Eurozone countries are behind this new trend.

So what can be done? For immigration from outside the European Union, we will continue to bear down on the numbers, and, if there is any evidence of abuse or signs that the numbers are turning, we will introduce new measures. For immigration from within the European Union, for the moment we are bound by the treaties and directives that successive governments have signed. But there are several things we can do, and I want to highlight three of them.

First, we must take action to address the pull factors that drive up immigration. Amongst other measures, we are creating a legal presumption that a European’s right to reside in Britain ends after six months – unless they can prove they are actively seeking work and stand a real chance of finding it. We are changing benefits rules so they are as tough as they can be. And we are making sure that councils set a residency requirement, or a minimum period of residence in a community, before a person qualifies for social housing.

But in all honesty, whatever the Government does in terms of reducing the pull factors that draw people to Britain, as long as there is such an enormous disparity between EU member states in terms of income per head, there will be an overwhelming incentive for people to move from poorer member states to richer member states. That not only puts pressure on communities in countries like Britain, it robs poorer EU member states of their most talented people. So in future, we must put in place new arrangements to slow full access to each other’s labour markets until we can be sure it will not lead to mass migration. This could, for example, be achieved by requiring new member states to reach a certain level of income or economic output per head before full free movement is allowed.

The third thing we must do is seize the opportunity presented to us by the Prime Minister’s plan to reform the European Union – and address the problems caused by free movement. Is it right for example that child benefit can be exported back to families living in other member states? Is it right that Europeans who have not contributed into our system should be able to claim benefits and use our public services free at the point of use? And is it right that there should be unfettered access to our labour markets, even if there is high unemployment amongst British workers? Why should individual member states not be allowed to impose a cap on numbers if European immigration reaches certain thresholds?

As things stand, there is no consensus across the Coalition and no majority in Parliament to deliver these reforms. So by addressing the pull factors, we are doing everything within our power to discourage immigration from the European Union. And we are doing everything we can – with great success – to reduce and control immigration from outside the European Union. But in 2015, the people will have a choice – because only the Conservative Party will be prepared to stand up for Britain in Europe, reform free movement, and seek to regain control of Britain’s immigration system.

Theresa May is the Home Secretary and Conservative MP for Maidenhead

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