The latest net migration statistics published on 27 May are a much-delayed snapshot of England and Wales. The Office for National Statistics notes that new data from the year up to June 2019 should be viewed with some caution as Covid impacted its data collection.
Nonetheless, these new figures raise serious questions about the future plans for immigration reform announced by the government earlier this week.
The latest data shows drops in all areas from EU and non-EU citizens alike. Visits to England or Wales for work or study for three months to a year fell from 160,000 in June 2018 to 100,000 by June 2019. The only category where migration rose was in British citizens seeking work abroad. This doubled from 30,000 to 60,000 over the same period.
The picture being painted is clear. Most did not see England and Wales as a place welcoming global talent, with a greater number of citizens looking elsewhere for opportunities. The trend continues in estimates up to this spring, where work-related visas were down by over one third on last year, with more than two thirds due to falls in intra-company transfers.
While there should be some caution regarding these estimates, they show that in the run-up to 1 January 2020, those seeking work and study opportunities were looking elsewhere and this was before the pandemic arrived. It seems all but certain that this is the start of an unfortunate trend that the government may want to address urgently.
Since 2010, the Conservatives have made election manifesto promises to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. One regular criticism is that net migration has not, in fact, been higher than under the Tories. This highlights how their rhetoric does not match reality. Talking tough has not translated into results.
A second frequently raised concern is about the use of net migration for setting policy. Net migration counts all individuals entering or leaving over the year regardless of their nationality and mostly estimated using passenger data, making it more guesswork than science.
It has been noticeable for years that net migration would actually be higher if British citizens – who are more likely to leave for abroad than return – were discounted from the figures.
Earlier this week, home secretary Priti Patel vowed to strengthen the UK’s digital border and introduce “greater accuracy”, avoiding hypothetical guesstimates of how much migration is actually happening. It is a shocking indictment that it has taken the Conservatives more than a decade to finally commit the government to getting a more accurate count, although no such system will be in place until 2025.
Paradoxically, the Tories have said they will not make any promises on migration reductions as they strive towards better accounting. This comes after making promises to cut numbers when the figures were known to be problematic for policy making.
This move towards improved accuracy is a part of Patel’s new plan for immigration, which sets out how she will fix the “broken immigration system” that her government has overseen for 11 years. While Patel won’t say whether the new plan would lead to more or less immigration, it is clear she wants to position these plans as radical and positive changes. But in short, does it matter?
Her plans include a much-heralded points-based system. What Patel leaves out is that the “new” system was actually already in place since 2008, when launched by New Labour. Patel’s plans mean that the already complex and confusing system will be changing for the worse.
For example, there is no one size fits all approach to a minimum salary needed. Instead, what is required and the number of points earned will depend on what occupation someone is in and the latest annual report on what the average salaries happen to be at that time, subject to regular changes that will cause major confusion in calculating whether someone can or cannot apply.
Given that the system was already in place for non-EU citizens in 2019, these changes do not appear likely to encourage global talent to work in the UK.
Patel also plans to reform the appeal process for rejected applicants. While she cites too many “repeated unmeritorious appeals and claims” as justification, Patel is silent on the large number of successful appeals against the Home Office.
If the home secretary wants a fairer and more transparent system, she can start by ensuring her department does a better job at enforcing their own rules in the first place. This proposal is also unlikely to lead to any beneficial changes. The latest figures for this spring show a drop of more than 40 per cent in grants of asylum, mostly because far fewer applications have been processed, leading to a record-level rising backlog.
Finally, a major aim of the new plan is to reform the UK’s asylum and refugee policy. Patel proposes to cut numbers by diverting some to apply on new economic migration pathways, which simply involves counting the same individuals, but in a different way.
None of these proposals address the core issues. Global talent is mobile, but the government fails to make a case for why more of the most talented should choose to relocate to a country where its immigration laws are becoming more complex, confusing, too often wrongly applied and in a continuous state of flux, where policies are aimed at making headlines and not evidence-led.
A more thorough, publicly engaged review is needed to ensure the system is fit for purpose and has public confidence. Until then, Patel’s plans may only fuel the unfortunate trend we see in these latest migration statistics. It will be yet another failed government strategy, that leaves us all worse off.
Thom Brooks is dean of Durham Law School and Professor of Law and Government at Durham University