Immigration is now an existential issue

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover

The latest measures intended to curb immigration join a long list of initiatives that so far have had the opposite effect. Net legal migration last year was the highest in the UK’s history by a country mile at more than 740,000.

Given the procession of prime ministers and home secretaries down the years promising to get a grip on the numbers it is understandable that the voters are disinclined to believe them anymore. The vote to leave the EU in 2016 was pushed over the line by the promise of controlling our own borders, thereby reducing immigration and population growth. Yet far from falling back, immigration has surged – only the incomers are now mostly from outside the European Union.

At three elections, the Conservatives promised to reduce net immigration to the “tens of thousands”, pretty much where it was between the 1971 Immigration Act and Labour’s rise to power in 1997. But it didn’t happen and for years – until Brexit – the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made the ambition unachievable.

The truth is that many parts of the British economy rely on immigrants because local people will not do the work in, for example, care homes for the same money. The latest measures that increase the salary requirement for migrant workers by 50 per cent will make it less viable for companies to recruit from abroad.

If they then have to pay more to find local staff this will have an inflationary effect. With shortages of low-paid employees in social care and the NHS, some exemptions will still be needed in these areas.

But the Government had to do something after the recent shock figures and, indeed, should have done so years ago. Restrictions on bringing dependants to the UK are long overdue. But there will be consequences for universities, colleges, care homes and hospitals that the Government will need to address in some other way.

The Government is expected shortly to publish legislation designed to override the court ban on sending illegal migrants to Rwanda. This will trigger a fierce parliamentary battle which Rishi Sunak would struggle to win. But the real story is the failure of successive governments to control something that is in their power: legal migration. In combination with previously announced steps, James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, believes these proposals will cut immigration by 300,000. This time he needs to be right.

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