Ross Clark Ross Clark

Falling migration might not be something for the Tories to celebrate

A member of the UK Border Force patrols at Heathrow Airport (Getty)

The good news for the Conservatives is that immigration is down. It looks as if the net migration figures will not be returning to the 745,000 measured in 2022 in the immediate future. Now the bad news: this decline isn’t so much thanks to a drop in small boat arrivals – although they did fall from 45,774 in 2022 to 29,437 in 2023. It is more to do with a sharp decline in the arrival of skilled workers, especially in the healthcare sector. In the first three months of 2024, the number of visas granted to skilled workers, health and social care workers and students fell to 139,100, from 184,000 in the same period of 2023.

The drop in health and social care workers coming to Britain has been especially precipitous, down from 14,300 in March 2023 to 2400 in March 2024. This could mark a return to normal following a large uplift in numbers arriving as the NHS struggled to recover from the pandemic in 2022 and 2023. But it won’t look good if NHS waiting times remain high and there remains a shortage of care workers to look after our increasingly ageing population. Moreover, while the government has been trying to reduce the number of dependents arriving with migrant workers, arrivals of dependents have remained stubbornly high – the number fell only a little from 16,700 in March 2023 to 13,200 in March 2024. 

So much for the points-based migration system promised during the Brexit campaign – the one which was supposed to allow us to pick and choose skilled workers who were going to contribute to the economy while keeping out others who might be a burden on our economy. It seems that if we want skilled workers to come to Britain, we might have to recognise that they will want to bring their spouses and children, too. 

The somewhat troublesome issue of human rights also seems to be making it hard to reduce net migration. Last year, the earnings required by a UK citizen wanting to bring a spouse into the country was raised from £18,600 to £29,000. If it has helped to reduce bogus marriages which take place purely to enable the issue of a visa, that is a good thing. But the trouble is that not all marriages between UK and overseas citizens are bogus.

Is the application of the ‘right to a family life’ contained within the European Convention on Human Rights being applied in an equal fashion? If it being used by the courts to prevent the deportation of Albanian criminals at the end of their prison sentences, then it’s hardly fair if it is not being used by Britons on modest salaries wanting to bring foreign spouses into the country.

As was repeatedly asserted during the Brexit campaign, it isn’t that most Britons are against all migration: the issue is the high numbers and the wrong type of migration. The most recent figures do little to suggest that the system has been properly rebalanced.