Immigration statistics don’t add up

by Nick Kent | 28.04.2017

Since 2010 the Conservatives have been committed to reducing net migration to the “tens of thousands” but the government has never managed to reach its own target. It is widely expected that this ambition will be repeated in the 2017 Conservative election manifesto.

The failure to meet the objective was central to the Brexit campaign in 2016. Indeed, the desire to curb immigration weighed so heavily in the referendum outcome that the government has said the UK cannot stay in the Single Market because that would mean continuing to allow the free movement of people.  So how we define “migrants”, and how we count them, matters because it forms a crucial part of the debate around Brexit.

For many years the UK has published an annual figure for the net number of long-term migrants who have entered the UK.  This is calculated through a passenger survey carried out at ports and airports that defines a long-term migrant as a person who will be staying in the UK for at least a year and a day.  The definition means both foreign students and British citizens returning from living abroad count towards the target.

Other countries count and define long-term migrants differently.  For example, the UK and Cyprus are the only EU countries to use a passenger survey to count migrants; other countries use more accurate methods.  Australia and the United States don’t include students in their migration targets. Theresa May has been resisting adopting this approach for nearly seven years.

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The Higher Education & Research Bill, which will define how universities are regulated for a generation, had been amended in the House of Lords to require ministers to omit students from the net migration target.  The government threatened to abandon the legislation unless the amendment, carried with a majority of 94, was removed.  

Peers were scathing about this response to a widely supported change. David Hannay*, who proposed the original amendment, noted that opinion polls show the public don’t see students as part of the immigration problem. The foreign secretary had emphasised the importance of international students to the UK, he said.  Hannay’s amendment was overturned at ministers’ insistence despite the Commons’ Education Committee calling this week for students to be left out of the migration target.  

This is more than a methodological spat among statisticians. If we do not have reliable immigration figures calculated in a way that commands broad support, how can we decide how many migrants we want (or don’t want)?  Ministers need to clear up the confusion about what net migration means by excluding international students and returning British citizens from their tens of thousands target.  They don’t need to wait for a promised White Paper on immigration to do that; they could put it in the Conservative manifesto next month.

*Full disclosure: David Hannay is a regular contributor to InFacts.

Edited by Paul Taylor