Clash over civil service advice in EU referendum
Civil servants were again dragged into the UK’s bitter EU referendum yesterday, when a former adviser to the prime minister said that officials had warned the prime minister it would be impossible to meet his immigration target as long as Britain remained an EU member.
Before the 2010 general election, then-leader of the Opposition David Cameron promised to cut net immigration from close to 200,000 to the “tens of thousands”. His Conservatives won the largest number of seats and formed a coalition – but as the UK’s economy grew whilst many European nations stagnated, thousands more EU citizens arrived in search of work.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Steve Hilton – a close adviser to the PM between the coalition’s 2010 formation and Hilton’s departure from government in 2012 – yesterday recalled a “stock take” meeting in early 2012.
“These involved ministers and civil servants responsible for a particular policy coming to No 10 for a long session, chaired by the Prime Minister, during which we could really get stuck into the details of how a particular reform was going,” he wrote. “I recall very clearly one of the points that was made to us by the expert officials in the room. We were told, directly and explicitly, that it was impossible for the government to meet its immigration target as long as we remained members of the EU, which, of course, insists on the free movement of people within it.”
The PM has rejected Hilton’s allegations, saying on ITV’s Lorraine show that his former adviser was “simply not right”.
“Actually when Steve Hilton left Downing Street in 2012, net immigration had actually fallen quite substantially and it got down to 154,000, so not far away from the ambition that I set,” he said.
Paul Kirby, who was head of the Downing Street policy unit in 2012, backed the PM in a tweet. “Actually, in 2012 [Home Office] Civil Servants advised PM immigration would be down to 105k by 2015. It’d fallen 30% 2010-12,” he said.
Net migration stood at 163,000 in 2008 and 196,000 in 2009, reaching a peak of about 250,000 in the year ending September 2010. It then fell until the third quarter of 2012, but subsequently rose again to reach 333,000 – around half of them EU citizens – in the year ending December 2015.
Hilton criticised the PM in particular for retaining the “tens of thousands” pledge in his 2015 election manifesto, saying he’d assumed that either the PM “was certain he could negotiate a solution within the EU, or was assuming we would leave.”
The danger of politicians making promises that they are unlikely to be able to keep, he argued, is that “it undermines not just faith in individual politicians but everybody’s faith in the democratic process itself.”
“For the Government to continue to make the promise today, after no negotiated solution was achieved and while campaigning to stay, is, I think, what [Brexit campaigners] Gove and Johnson meant when they described this as corrosive of trust in politics.”
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