Expert Immigration Commentary: the Migration Observatory

Published: 3rd May 2015

The Migration Observatory's Election 2015 briefing series can be found here. The Migration Observatory is based at the University of Oxford, and provides impartial, independent, authoritative, evidence-based analysis of data on migration and migrants in the UK. The commentary that follows has been produced independently of Full Fact.


There is no such thing as the "right" or the "wrong" immigration policy—every different approach to managing migration will involve different trade-offs and have its supporters and its opponents. Similarly, there is no "optimal" level of migration to the UK.

The impacts of immigration are complex, affect different groups in different ways, and in some cases remain uncertain.

Arguably the two most prominent issues in the immigration debate in the months leading up to the election have been levels of migration and migrants' access to welfare benefits. This note examines how the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos address these two complex issues.

Policies on net migration

Before 2010 net migration was a relatively obscure measure for most people other than those actively involved in analysis of migration. The Conservative party's target of reducing net migration "from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands" was relatively popular with voters in 2010, but was not met. It reappears in the Conservative manifesto as an "ambition".

When it was introduced, the net migration target appeared a straightforward way of demonstrating 'control' of the immigration system. In the context of a substantial increase in the foreign-born population over the course of the 2000s, it provided an opportunity to show that the pace of change would be slowed in a clear and measurable way.

However, it was clear that the target would be exceptionally difficult to achieve and the government's own impact assessments suggested that reductions in non-EU migration would be insufficient to ensure the target was met.

Three factors contributed to the difficulty meeting the target. First, the net migration measure contained factors beyond government control, particularly the level of EU immigration. The target also included groups not normally classified as "migrants" such as international students and UK citizens. Secondly, policy changes on non-EU migration did not bring down numbers sustainably. Thirdly, economic growth did—as the Conservative manifesto points out—facilitate recent rebounds in the numbers: the growth differential between the UK and the rest of Europe appears to have encouraged free movement to the UK.

At the same time, increases in non-EU family and work flows towards the end of the parliament took place in the absence of notable policy changes during that period, underlining the fact that even non-EU numbers cannot necessarily be predicted precisely and depend to some degree on the number of people who apply and the availability and type of jobs.

The Labour Party has not put a number on its immigration policy but its manifesto says that low skilled migration to the UK has been too high and needs to be reduced. It does not specify precisely how this would be achieved, but implies that lower demand for migrant labour would result from efforts enforce the minimum wage effectively and prevent the exploitation of migrant workers While these measures can be expected to reduce labour immigration, especially in low-waged labour markets, empirically it is difficult to assess the likely magnitude of this effect.

More direct restrictions on low-skilled migration could be difficult to implement. The two main sources of immigration into low-skilled jobs are EU labour migration and non-EU family migration.

EU mobility cannot be directly restricted under EU law. The current government has already introduced significant restrictions on non-EU family migration, most notably through an income threshold for people sponsoring their spouse to come to the UK. An estimated 43% of British nationals who are employees do not earn enough to bring their partner here under the new policy.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto avoids commenting directly on the level of net migration. It proposes reintroducing a narrower version of the post-study work visa that was eliminated under the current government. It also suggests separating students from other categories within the official immigration statistics, a move that has been proposed in the past by those arguing that there should be no target for reducing international student numbers. If the goal of this proposed measure is to remove students from any official target on net migration, its implications are somewhat unclear. Students who do not stay in the UK after graduation should, in principle, be counted as emigrants when they leave, under current policies. That means international students should already only contribute to net migration in the medium to long term if they switch from student status into another category, such as work or family.

Access to welfare

Both the Labour and Conservative manifestos propose limiting the availability of benefits to newly arrived EU citizens for 2 and 4 years respectively— policies that would need to be negotiated with the EU.

Rules on non-UK citizens' access to various forms of social assistance are complex, as are the economic and fiscal implications of changes in policy. Most non-EU nationals who are subject to immigration control are not allowed access to "public funds" (such as jobseekers' allowance or tax credits), although they can use public services like the NHS and education.

EU citizens who are working have similar access to the benefits as UK citizens. For jobseekers or people not working, the rules for determining eligibility can be complex and vary depending on the type of benefit in question.

It is unclear to what extent current or proposed welfare restrictions would reduce future immigration from the European Union. EU citizens can access benefits more quickly, but the majority are working so out-of work benefits are unlikely to be a draw for them either.

In-work benefits are immediately available to workers from elsewhere in the EU. While the availability of jobs is thought to be the prime factor in migrants' decisions to move, it seems plausible that just as potential migrants take into account wage levels, they may also take account of the possibility of in-work benefits. Some analysts have argued that the financial incentive to migrate would therefore be decreased if these benefits were restricted.

In practice, however, it is unclear how significant the effects of such a policy would be on the number of people choosing to migrate. People born in the EU are more likely to receive tax credits than the UK born—particularly those from new EU Member States who are more likely to be working in low-wage jobs. But a relatively small share of the 2.2 million EU born working-age population report claiming tax credits (14% in 2014, according to Migration Observatory analysis of the Labour Force Survey), and many have been in the country for several years. This suggests that the number of people whose initial migration decision might be affected by the immediate availability of tax credits is only a small share of the total.

Was this page useful to you? Yes No

We aim for our factchecks to be as accurate and up-to-date as possible. If you think we've made an error or missed some relevant information, please email