Gov’t immigration stats are guesswork

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UK immigration figures are not fit for purpose, according to a report issued by a committee of MPs. The report calls for the ‘e-borders’ system first proposed by Tony Blair in 2005 to be implemented as soon as possible.

With immigration again set to be a key battleground during the next election, the Coalition claims it has reduced net immigration from 260,000 a year when it came to power in 2010 to 163,000 in the year to June 2012. In the year to June 2012, inward migration was estimated at 515,000. About 15 per cent of that was by British nationals, about 30 per cent by other EU nationals and about 55 per cent was by non-EU nationals. Outward migration was estimated at 352,000, with about 44 per cent of that being British nationals.

During this time it has abolished the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) visa which allowed foreign graduates to work in the UK for two years after graduation and the Tier 1 (General) visa which allowed foreign graduates to come to the UK and work

It has also introduced a cap of 20,700 on the Tier 2 (General) visa for skilled workers and barred over 500 English colleges from sponsoring foreign students for Tier 4 student visas

But the Public Administration Committee (PAC) of the House of Commons says that UK immigration figures are ‘not adequate for understanding the scale and complexity of modern migration flows’. Committee chairman Bernard Jenkin MP, a Conservative, said:

“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. Clearly, these statistics are not fit for purpose in the longer term.

“Even now, the really useful information from e-Borders data is at least five years off. Given the importance of immigration as a potentially explosive issue, this ought to be given a much higher priority.”

Chris Bryant MP, Labour’s immigration spokesperson, said the report cast doubt on the Government’s claims to have cut net migration. “People want a bit of honesty on immigration, so the Home Secretary should look at how to measure it more accurately as a matter of urgency.”

He added: “Grand speeches, gimmicks and dodgy statistics don’t cut much ice, especially when the Government still doesn’t even have a plan to count people in and out of the country.”

A spokesman for Home Office said in a July 29 interview on the BBC:

“We disagree with the report’s conclusions. Government reforms on immigration are working and the statistics do show that net immigration is at its lowest level for a decade”.

The Government arrives at a net immigration figure by calculating the difference between an estimate of the number of people who come to the UK who intend to live in the country for more than a year, and the number of UK residents who leave over the same period. The PAC says that the figures are unreliable because they are based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS), which was designed only to indicate tourism trends. Data from the survey are extrapolations from random interviews with passengers.

Fewer than 0.7 per cent of the passengers interviewed tend to be migrants and the responses given by this tiny proportion may, the report says, ‘be reticent to give full and frank answers’. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) appends information about asylum-seekers and other Home Office statistics to this information to reach its final figure.

This means that the Office for National Statistics and the Home Office are producing ‘blunt instruments for measuring, managing, and understanding migration to and from the UK’, which do not, the report says, measure the impact of migration on local areas, the social and economic impacts of migration or the effects of immigration policy.

The Public Administration Committee report calls the UK immigration figures little more than an educated guess and says that the headline net immigration figure for the year to June 2013; 153,000 might be out by about 30,000 in either direction.

The report also says that the statistics are of little value for the government in the formulation of public policy and the provision of services because they do not break down immigrants into categories. It is therefore impossible for government to use them to decide how many schools, hospitals and other services are likely to be required to cater for their needs.

Mr Jenkin said:

“Most people would be utterly astonished to learn that there is no attempt to count people as they enter or leave the UK. 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.”

He added that the government should ensure that the e-borders project is up-and-running as soon as possible.

Work began on e-borders in 2007 with a remit to collate information on all people entering and exiting the UK. Six years later and eight years since it was proposed, the project is not yet operational. A £742m contract was awarded to a US software firm, but this was terminated in 2010 after the government lost confidence in the company.

The Home Secretary announced in April that the e-borders scheme would not be up and running until 2016 at the earliest and it is understood that the government will put new contracts to complete the project out for tender later this year.