What to watch for in Thursday’s immigration figures

 Just as the referendum debate begins in earnest, tomorrow sees the publication of ONS’ Quarterly Migration Statistics.  As ever, the headline numbers for net migration will be closely scrutinised, and in particular flows from the EU. Forecasting migration numbers is even more of a mugs’ game than economic forecasting in general, so I won’t even try, but here are some things to watch out for:

  • Will the remarkable divergence between National Insurance number (NiNo) registrations and the headline EU migration figures (based on the International Passenger Survey), which I discussed in detail here, continue? If so, will ONS or the government publish any further analysis to shed some light on what is actually going on?

  • Will EU migration for work begin to fall back from its recent historically unprecedented levels? Despite the lurid headlines about 2 million EU worker,the latest Labour Force survey data suggested that the relative attractiveness of the UK labour market might finally have peaked..
  • Since the election and the departure of the Liberal Democrats, who (particularly Vince Cable) pressed for a more economically sensible approach to skilled migration from outside the EU, further restrictions are in prospect, much to the dismay of business.  Given the tightening of the labour market in some sectors  (especially business and financial services in London) what has happened to work-related non-EU migration?
  • The asylum statistics will show that in 2015 asylum claims rose to their highest level for more than a decade, reflecting the ongoing Europe-wide refugee crisis. In or out of the EU, and despite our exclusion from Schengen, this is not an issue the UK can simply ignore.

How will the figures influence the referendum? As I note here, one impact of the PM’s deal is to make crystal clear that if the UK votes to stay in, the issue of free movement will have been resolved.  As the Government’s White Paper puts it:

The UK accepts the free movement of workers across the EU. The UK economy benefits from it

So if we vote to Remain, then no-one will be able to say they didn’t know what they were voting for.  If we vote to leave, then the picture is less clear. Some proponents of Brexit, including for example UKIP, favour a significant increase in non-EU migration to accompany a reduction in EU migration; while others, such as the proponents of “Flexcit”, support, as an interim measure, a Norway-style deal that preserves EU free movement.  There would be no magical large and painless reduction in migration flows, and hard questions will remain, as I explain here.

So although there will be lots of focus on the numbers tomorrow, what would be better if both sides in the referendum campaign actually gave a straight answer to what sort of immigration policy they would like to see.  As many have argued (eg, British Future), a first step for both would be to pledge abandon the perverse and economically damaging target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”, and instead set out – inside or outside the EU – what a migration policy that was actually in the long-term economic and social interests of the UK would look like. 

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