Whisper it but the government have a fighting chance of reaching their immigration target. The main risk now is an inflow from Romania and Bulgaria when our labour market is fully opened to them next January. That is why the issue of child benefit is important; if we continue to pay it to children left at home it could greatly encourage such migration.
Opposition to the government’s immigration policy is now starting to dissipate. Much of it has come from special interest groups who stand to gain from unlimited immigration. Unfortunately for them, their raucous campaigns are colliding with the facts. It is hard to argue that business is suffering when there is no limit to the transfer of senior international staff, and when only about half of the work permits available for skilled staff have been taken up. Certainly, there are problems with the bureaucracy. That is inevitable when two or three million decisions are taken every year, but those difficulties should ameliorate over time. As for damage to our reputation as a centre for world business, much of that has been generated by the business lobby itself – no one else has talked about Britain being no longer open for business (despite the arrival of one and a half million business visitors a year).
Their latest ploy is to claim that the government will look for further restrictions on business when they fail to meet their immigration target. With a government completely focused on growth, that is simply absurd. In any case, economic migration is no longer where the numbers are.
Meanwhile a similar campaign conducted by the universities has been blown out of the water as we have recently learned that the latest figures for non EU applications to British universities actually rose by 9 per cent – yes 9 per cent. Where there has been a drop in numbers it has been in the college sector and in applications from the Indian sub-continent where much of the extensive abuse has been taking place.
So the issue comes back to Romania and Bulgaria which could yet blast a hole in the government’s immigration strategy. No calculation is possible – only an intelligent estimate of the likely numbers. Our estimate, so far the only one, is 50,000 per year for the next five years.
What can be done? Recent talk of removing EU citizens after three or six months because they are not exercising one of their treaty rights as workers or self sufficient persons is just that – talk. We have very limited capacity for such removals and, in any case, there is nothing to stop those removed from coming straight back.
It follows that there is no way in which the British government can constrain access by Romanian and Bulgarian migrants next year without acting in direct contravention of the European Treaty. Any such proposal would, of course, be vigorously opposed by the Liberal Democrats and by at least some Conservatives.
The only thing to be done is to seek to ensure that our benefit system is not a further ‘pull factor’ for EU migration to Britain. Here is where child benefit kicks in. On present arrangements, a Bulgarian or Romanian working in Britain could claim for two children and receive an amount that was equivalent to a week’s wages at the minimum wage in his home country. This is a huge incentive to head for Britain, or for the Netherlands or Germany, which are the only other major EU countries which pay child benefit to non-resident children.
The focus now, therefore, must be on tightening access to this and other parts of the benefit system. A massive Polish migration during an economic boom is one thing. A substantial Romanian and Bulgarian influx during an extended recession is quite another.
Sir Andrew Green is chairman of Migration Watch UK.
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