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Migration statistics not fit for purpose

Migration statistics that are produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Home Office are nothing more than a “blunt instrument” when it comes to measuring, managing and understanding migration to and from the UK.

This is the opinion expressed by the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) in a recently published report, in which PASC calls for new sources of statistics to provide a full and accurate account of UK migration.

Current statistics lack accuracy

According to PASC, the current sources of migration statistics were established at a time when migration levels were much lower than they are now.

Although efforts have been made to improve their accuracy and relevancy, they are still not up to the task of understanding the scale and complexity of modern migration flows. In particular, PASC believes they are no longer accurate enough to measure the impact of migration on local populations, the social and economic impacts of migration, or the effects of immigration policy.

Current net migration estimates

According to PASC, in the 12 months ending June 2012, net migration was estimated to be around 163,000. This estimate was based primarily on a sample of around 5,000 migrants identified through the International Passenger Survey – a survey of people travelling through airports and seaports in the UK.

PASC claims that estimates calculated in this way are subject to a large margin of error, and do not provide enough information on the types of people entering or leaving the UK to properly measure the social and economic consequences of migration or their impact on local areas.

“Most people would be utterly astonished to learn that there is no attempt to count people as they enter or leave the UK,” said Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of PASC. “They are amazed when they are told that Government merely estimates that there are half a million immigrants coming into the UK each year.

“This is based on random interviews of around 800,000 people stopped and interviewed at ports and airports each year. Only around 5,000 of those are actual migrants, many of whom may be reticent to give full and frank answers, to say the least,” he added.

Additional problems

PASC also claims that the ONS and Home Office data are incompatible in several respects:

  • ONS migration estimates contain no information on the immigration status of migrants, and therefore it is not possible to tell how many immigrants identified by the ONS entered the UK in particular visa categories.
  • Home Office statistics do not indicate the number of visa holders with valid leave to remain in the UK, or the number that overstay their leave to remain.

According to PASC, the accuracy and usefulness of the current official migration statistics could be considerably improved if the two sources properly recorded and linked the data they already gather. However, in order to obtain a full and accurate statistical account of migration, the ONS would also need to develop new sources of migration statistics.

Bernard Jenkin commented that as an island nation, with professional statisticians and effective border controls, we could gain decent estimates of who exactly is coming into this country, where they come from, and why they are coming here. Currently, however, the top line numbers for the Government’s 100,000 net migration target are little better than a best guess – and could be out by tens of thousands.

Targeting international students

The PASC report is not the first time the Government has been criticised over its calculation of immigration figures. Indeed, a number of recent criticisms have focused on the fact that that international students are included as permanent migrants in the net migration figure.

Business organisation London First has warned that international students from outwith the EU are being seen as an easy target to help the Government meet its net migration targets – particularly as the Government has very little control over immigration from within the EU. These international students can be very valuable to the UK economy, but they are now choosing to go to other European countries instead because the UK is no longer perceived as welcoming to international students.

Think-tank IPPR has also expressed concerns over the way the Government’s immigration policy and target figures are affecting international students. Associate Director, Sarah Mulley recently pointed out that the Government’s progress towards its net migration target is mainly being driven by falling numbers of international students.

“This decline in international student numbers comes at considerable economic cost to the UK at a time when we can ill afford it,” she said.

Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v1.0.

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