Mr Davis asked a couple of good questions yesterday on the Today programme. Faced with Michael Heseltine saying student numbers should be left out of the net migration statistics, he asked him how this would make any difference, as in a steady state the same number leave their courses at their end as start courses at the beginning. It should on this basis make no difference to the net figure.
Lord Heseltine said this was a good point which he then proceeded to ignore, as he was clearly unable to answer it. What he should have said was there had been great growth in student numbers coming to the UK under Labour. Many of these came to institutions other than universities, including a large number of bogus colleges which gave cover to young people to enter the country and then to find work without the correct permits.
The Coalition government has taken tough action to close down a large number of these bogus colleges. In the year to June 2010 the then UK government granted 320,000 student visas. In the year to December 2013 this had dropped to 219,000. The fall occurred in the non university numbers. The government saw that it could not control the overall totals of new migrants without controlling student visa numbers, because this system had been so abused. It made sure that all students properly qualified to come to a UK university are able to do so, and are welcome.
Mr Davis then asked Lord Heseltine to discuss the wisdom of having a net migration target, suggesting it was something sketched on the back of an envelope. His guest took the easy option, talking about the lack of envelopes in use in framing policy, and praising civil servants for the work they do to flesh out Ministerial policies. He once again ducked the interesting question of whether we need a gross or net target.
What he could have said was a net target matters because public service provision is most sensitive to the total number of people in the country needing public service. Controlling net migration offers some control over the amount of extra roadspace, new trains, and extra health and educational capacity we need as we respond to the changing population. If one extra person enters the country at the same time as one person emigrates there is not the same increase in demand as if an extra one person enters.
I think we need to look at both net and gross migration. You could have a situation where the public spending consequences of no net migration need managing, depending on who leaves and who arrives and their requirements for public spending support. You need to look at the impact of large amounts of change in the population either way. Big change in population can also have large geographical impacts, if many arriving choose to settle in the faster growing more populated areas, whilst those leaving come from a wider geographical base.
In the year to September 2013 the net migration figure was still at 212,000 for the most recent year. The gross inward migration figures was 532,000, with 320,000 leaving. Under Labour gross inward migration reached 600,000. Within this inward migration from non EU countries was well down on the Labour years, but EU migration was increasing. We need to be concerned about gross as well as net.