The business community has warned against “knee-jerk” policies to curb immigration following the release of Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showing net migration to the UK has reached an all-time high.
The Institute of Directors and British Future have both said that radical policies to prevent migrants coming to the UK will damage the economy, with other bodies agreeing with the importance of recruiting skilled foreign workers.
The two groups have called for a "comprehensive immigration review" to establish what policies could be put in place to achieve the tens of thousands target, and such policies’ impact on the UK's economy, culture and society.
Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said: "Scrabbling around to find measures to hit a bizarre and unachievable migration target is no way to give British businesses the stable environment they need.
"Combined with ministers' increasingly strong rhetoric on immigration, the UK's reputation as an open, competitive economy is under threat."
Mark Hilton, director of immigration policy at non-profit business group London First, agreed that the government must not use this record figure as an excuse to cap migration of skilled workers. “Our industries need access to talent and skills from around the world in order to remain global leaders,” he said. “But they are struggling to bring in the talent we lack because they’re hitting government limits for skilled workers.
“We need to make strategic decisions on immigration, not knee-jerk ones that fail to take account of the needs of the economy.”
REC chief executive Kevin Green told HR magazine that the government needs to take a “sensible and balanced approach to immigration” that factors in the need for skilled workers but also creates opportunities for UK nationals.
“By introducing measures aimed at cutting immigration without thinking through the consequences the government could do more harm than good,” he said.
“The reality is that we need more skilled people in the UK, not less. Businesses are at capacity, unemployment is low, and we’re seeing skills shortages in all sectors and all regions. We need increased investment in training by employers and better careers advice for young people as part of a longer-term solution. But without people to fill current job vacancies in healthcare, education, construction, and technology, UK businesses will be constrained and public services will be further stretched.
“As we begin to think about a forthcoming EU referendum the risk is that the immigration debate will be over-simplified. We need to be clear on the long-term consequences of policies designed to cut immigration. We’ve already seen for instance the scrapping of the two-year post-study work visa for students, which means that we’re turning away highly skilled people at a time when we really need them,” he added.
Law firm Moore Blatch's head of immigration, Simon Kenny warned of the ineffectiveness of net migration targets in welcoming those valuable to the UK economy while controlling migration overall.
"Today’s criticism of the net migration target by the Institute of Directors and British Futures echoes long-standing concern about a focus upon this from the business lobby, the education sector, and people seeking reunion in the UK with family members,” he told HR magazine. “All have previously commented that tighter immigration policies do not in themselves help to achieve the net migration target. Such policies do, however, impact people who they believe should be allowed to live, work, invest or study in the UK.”
Official ONS data showed a net 330,000 people moved to the UK in the year to March 2015, up 40% on the same period last year. Of that figure, 183,000 came from within the EU, up by 53,000 on 2014's statistics.