Migration inaccuracies blow holes in Brexit debate

by Luke Lythgoe | 24.08.2017

A staggering reassessment of the number of international students overstaying their study visas has exposed the shortcomings of the UK’s current system for gathering migration data. A new method for recording departures showed only 4,600 students overstayed in 2016/17, rather than the tens of thousands habitually claimed by outraged anti-immigration commentators.

Migration-watchers across the spectrum are keenly aware that the existing system leaves much to be desired. Pro-Europeans have criticised the way the international passenger survey – currently the government’s favoured method – defines migrants and distorts the public debate. Brexiters too have denounced the system, though using it to their advantage during the referendum by claiming the government was hiding a “million missing migrants” and forcing a denial from the Office for National Statistics.

The ONS readily admits that political hunger for migration figures is “pushing the survey well beyond what it was designed for”, hence the new methods being trialled by the Home Office. The new student figures were reached using exit checks, which use a series of administrative records to ascertain what migrants actually do rather than just their intentions, as the survey does.

Are exit checks the way to go then? The ONS is hesitant, saying that although the passenger survey is likely to “underestimate student emigration” the new data cannot be fed into the national migration statistics because there could be another “group of emigrants who have a tendency to understate” their time in the UK. Work is underway to bring various methods together – including the passenger survey – to develop “a robust approach to measuring net migration”.

However, one trend we can be certain of is that EU citizens are leaving the UK in significant numbers. The latest quarterly migration statistics showed total net migration in the year ending March 2017 was 246,000, down 81,000 on the same time last year. More than half of that change was due to net migration of EU citizens falling by 51,000, and in particular the number of EU citizens leaving the UK increasing by 33,000.

Further new data, published by HMRC today, torpedoed the myth of benefit tourism, showing that less than 2% of tax credit expenditure is paid to recently arrived EEA nationals. In 2014-15, EEA nationals paid £13.6 billion more income tax and national insurance than they took out in tax credits and child benefit.

The implications of “Brexodus” for the UK economy are considerable. A report published by the Food and Drink Federation today warned that a Brexit workforce shortage could leave a third of its businesses unviable. Other sectors likely to suffer a serious lack of staff include healthcare, financial services, hospitality and construction.

Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, who published research before the referendum on how Brexit-induced emigration might affect the economy, said: “These statistics confirm that Brexit is having a significant impact on migration flows, even before we have left the EU or any changes are made to law or policy. EU nationals, both those already here and those considering a move to the UK, are understandably concerned about their future status in the UK.”

No doubt the Home Office accidentally informing 100 EU nationals they were being deported has done little to alleviate these concerns.

Whether more robust migration data would have stopped the UK voting to Leave last year is, of course, unknowable. It may not have stopped Brexiters’ “a city the size of Newcastle moves to the UK every year” spiel (presumably lower numbers would merely have seen them choose a smaller city), but it might have put paid to their “who knows how many migrants are really here” line. Unfortunately, there remain a good many statistical holes in the Great British migration debate.

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Edited by Jane Macartney