The Home Office’s tough stance on migration is at odds with the Treasury’s push for growth, an expert has said.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has repeatedly made hardline statements on immigration, including advocating a cut to the number of foreign student visas and a desire to lower net migration to the tens of thousands.
Last week, Ms Braverman also unveiled the controversial Illegal Migration Bill, which seeks to bar anyone arriving in the UK by small boat from ever seeking asylum and accessing modern slavery support, with arrivals immediately detained and deported.
But in today’s economic forecast, published alongside the budget from Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) announced it had increased forecasts for net migration to the UK – and indicated this was positive for economic growth.
“Net migration flows settle at 245,000 a year, rather than the 205,000 assumed in our November forecast and 129,000 in our March 2022 forecast. A larger population, due to increased net migration, adds 0.5 per cent to potential output in 2027,” it wrote.
James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation, said this meant that the “entire budget package rests on OBR growth forecasts” which assume net migration to the UK will be 245,000 a year – higher than previously forecast.
Mr Kirkup said this was “the latest official confirmation that immigration can bring economic and fiscal benefits to the UK by giving employers access to more skilled workers.”
He added: “Sadly, many politicians who are happy to bank the economic benefits of migration lack the courage to talk honestly about those economic benefits. Instead of stoking fears over Channel crossings, ministers whose plans rely on high levels of economic migration should be levelling with the public about the economic benefits immigration can bring.”
Other commentators suggested there was a contradiction between the alarm bells the Government has been ringing over Channel crossings, which numbered 45,000 last year, and an acceptance of the rise in economic migration reaching five times that figure.
Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said that the contrast between Government rhetoric and the OBR’s assessment reflected a longstanding tension between the Home Office and departments focused on economic growth.
“There has always been a tension within Governments – going back 20 years, not just in the current Government – between different objectives of the Home Office, which is held accountable for overall migration levels and often has an objective of trying to reduce migration or keep it below a certain level – and other Government departments which tend to be a bit more favourable towards migration,” she said.
“Either in the Treasury, because it helps with the growth models, or particularly departments whether its health or culture. That’s a perennial dynamic between Government where there’s a constructive tension between the Home Office and other departments, and we see that currently.”
She added: “In migration and in many other areas, you can’t achieve everything at once. There’s benefits of having more people coming in – it makes fiscal projections more comfortable – but there may be political objections for entirely different reasons.”
The Migration Observatory stressed that the revised migration forecasts didn’t mean that the number of migrants was expected to rise, but that the OBR was adjusting its assessments in response to the rise already seen in net migration.
Deputy Director Rob McNeil added: “Migration comes in many different forms and can have many different effects: something that creates a positive economic benefit might not always be deemed to have a positive social impact, and vice versa. The overall discussion about ‘migration’ and simple headline numbers tends to obscure the fact that it describes very different things – for instance, the Government has recently been very focused on numbers arriving on small boats, but that’s different from their other focus on bringing in the ‘brightest and the best’.
“Since Brexit there has been significant liberalisation of migration routes for workers from outside the EU to come here, though it is harder for people from the EU. The Government has made it clear it is encouraging migration in some respects such as skilled workers and students, and has also created visas for hundreds of thousands of people from Ukraine and Hong Kong.”
Maxwell Marlow, Director of Research at the Adam Smith, said: “The Government does know that migration is really important for growth. Their commitment to continually updating the Shortage Occupation List, as we have advocated for in a recent Forgotten Medium Paper, shows as much.”
However, he warned that the Government is “at risk of dragging themselves into a hole in the long run” by having a deficit between negative rhetoric on migration and migration continuing to go up.
“There’s no data on whether hostile rhetoric towards migration is putting people off coming to the UK, but the student visa comments are particularly concerning. The Government can’t shut out the brightest minds to appease the less-liberal wing of the party,” he said.
It comes as the Shortage Occupation List, which determines which migrants can applies for skills based visas in the UK, is expected to be extended to construction and related sectors to boost immigration, but not expected to include retail and hospitality where there are tens of thousands of shortages.
Heather Rolfe, Director of Research at migration think tank British Future, said that there was “definitely a gap” between some hostile Government narratives around migration and the broader opinion of the public on migration to work.
“Public attitudes have shifted a lot in terms of attitude to migration, particularly in areas where there’s seen to be an economic need as well as social value,” she said.
In 2012, 55 per cent of people surveyed by British Future agreed migration would damage economic recovery by taking jobs from those living here, while 24 per cent said they believed migrant skillsets were necessary to help the UK economy.
But in 2022, asked the same question, the answers were reversed, with 53 per cent agreeing that migration was important for the economy and 23 per cent saying they believed it would damage it.
“The salience of immigration has fallen, while the salience of the economy and cost of living has taken its place. Within that, immigration is now seen to have a positive role to play in the economy,” Ms Rolfe said.
“There’s a lack of appreciation in the Government – and more generally – in how attitudes have shifted. In our surveys, most people thought their friends and family had the same attitudes to immigration, but most think the British public overall have become more negative.”
While Ms Braverman has expressed a desire to bring down the overall numbers of migration, 44 per cent of the public said they would prioritise a controlled system, even if it meant numbers going up.
Mikhail Korneev, Researcher at Bright Blue, said that migration was crucial to the UK’s labour market, but that the Government could afford to make hostile statements without turning prospective workers off.
“Expanding the labour market is one of the most important ingredients to increasing economic growth. The three main sources for this are parental, older age and migrant employment,” he said.
“The Tories are increasingly suggesting tougher rhetoric and rules on immigration. However, the UK labour market remains highly attractive, so it is likely that the UK Government can afford the hostile rhetoric without facing any major economic consequences. Indeed, the OBR forecasts continued high migration”.