May 15, 2023 - 6:30pm

Here’s an interesting question prompted by Suella Braverman’s speech at the National Conservatism conference today: is the Government trying to bring net migration down? And if so, to what extent?

Ministers certainly talk a lot about it, and successive governments set themselves arbitrary numerical targets. But, as they kept failing to hit them, eventually they gave that up. Last week it was reported that the Home Office fears net immigration will top one million this year — double the previous peak. How do we tell the difference between “they’re trying but it’s complicated” and “they’re all talk?”

Happily, the Government has given us a handy tool for determining what its actual policy is: the fabled points-based immigration system. This approach allows ministers to fine-tune the rules to suit their policy priorities.

On that front, a commitment to reducing net immigration isn’t obvious. Under the rubric that what the voters really wanted was control alone, restrictions such as minimum earnings thresholds and the requirement to advertise jobs in the UK first have been set aside, one by one. 

This ability to tweak the system according to need has seen architects added to the list of so-called shortage occupations, meaning they can be hired from anywhere at 80% of the domestic “going rate” salary. Yet that is so low (about £26,000) that the Architects’ Journal recently asked whether it was still a “viable career choice” at all as the cost-of-living crisis bites.

And there is a case for all this. We need to replenish the working-age population to pay the ever-mounting tab for old-age entitlements, and British citizens aren’t having a sufficient number of children to do it.

Business also obviously demands easy access to labour, and we don’t have many of these skills on-tap in the British workforce.

And when politics prevents the Government from grasping the real levers of sustainable growth (i.e., building things) the Treasury instinct is to wring everything it can out of what you’ve got. That involves both high immigration and cracking down on the “economically inactive” — even when they’re comfortably retired and simply don’t want to work.

For too long, the Conservative Party has talked big on immigration but not shown any sign of accepting that its reduction means making fundamental changes to our economy. Disapproving pieces in the Financial Times about how this or that industry had been “forced to train an army of homegrown” workers would be common fare.

The Home Secretary may have picked some weird examples in her speech today — nobody really cares about seasonal workers such as fruit pickers – but her core point is correct:

There is no good reason why we can’t train enough HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers. Brexit enables us to build a high-skilled, high-wage economy that is less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour.
- Suella Braverman

If the Tories want to bring immigration down in the long term, they need to meet the needs it services another way.

Doing that would involve a showdown with the Treasury, not to mention every other department for which migrants are a short-term salve. It would also require not just a confrontation with the business lobby but a fundamental rethink about how a Conservative government would approach business.

At present immigration, like degree inflation, is basically an externalised cost: employers get the benefit of training but graduates, society, and the state pick up the tab.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.