For years, UK migration figures have been measured independently according to agreed United Nations definitions. Today’s report by the independent Office for National Statistics is a clear endorsement of the validity of those figures. I welcome the clarity that the ONS has provided on this important issue, and am glad to have the opportunity to clear up some of the misconceptions about the figures for national insurance numbers and what those may mean for EU migration.
On 7 March this year, the Office for National Statistics published a note explaining why long-term international immigration figures could differ from the number of national insurance number registrations, concluding that the two series are likely to differ. At the same time, the ONS undertook to conduct further analysis of the issue. It has published its conclusions this morning; I stress that that is independent work carried out by an independent statistics authority. Its conclusions are clear. The ONS has now stated that the difference between the number of long-term EU migrants and the number of national insurance registrations by EU nationals can largely be accounted for by short-term EU migration to the UK, and that the independent international passenger survey remains
“the best source of information for measuring”
net migration. The ONS also says that national insurance figures are “not a good measure” of levels of migration, even if they are helpful for understanding patterns of migration.
A national insurance number can be obtained by anyone working in the UK for just a few weeks, and the ONS explains clearly that the number of national insurance registrations should not be compared with migration figures because they measure entirely different things. Short-term migrants have never been included in the long-term migration statistics, which are governed by UN definitions. There have always been short-term migrants who are not picked up in those statistics, but short-term migration will not have an impact on population growth and population pressures, as by definition short-term migrants leave the UK within 12 months of arriving.
The Government look forward to the ONS’s follow-up note later in the year, which will set out its analysis in greater detail. We must now be careful not to distort the figures following the ONS’s clear statement. I welcome its conclusions, which I hope provide reassurance to those concerned that national insurance data could suggest that the published migration statistics were inaccurate.
The Government take very seriously the need to reduce net migration to long-term sustainable levels, from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. We have taken a number of steps to achieve that, of which the Immigration Bill, which completed its parliamentary passage this week, is just the latest. Clear and accurate statistics are integral to what we are seeking to achieve. I am pleased that today the ONS has, with its normal impartiality, confirmed that the statistics based on the international passenger survey that we use have the necessary integrity and remain the best measure for understanding net migration.
I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, but does he not accept that the very popular programme of making a substantial reduction in net migration that he, I and other Conservative MPs stood on at the general election is quite impossible to honour as a promise given the Government’s own figures for migration, never mind the figures for national insurance? Migration has been running well above the maximum total that we suggested to the electorate. Does that not show that all the time we stay in the European Union we cannot control EU migration in the way we promised at the general election? Does the big difference between the national insurance numbers and the migration figures have implications that will worry Members across the House, given the impact on public services?
Over five years, 1.2 million additional people came to the UK, got a job and a national insurance number, and lived here for a considerable time, even if some of them have now departed. Those people needed doctors surgeries, school places for their children, and so on. In the past two years, an additional 1.1 million people have registered for GP services. That implies that national insurance numbers are closer to the truth, and that we need to consider those figures as well as the formal migration numbers when planning public provision.
Does the Minister share my concern that we are not offering a sufficiently good welcome in terms of GP places, health facilities and school places, and that that is putting a lot of pressure on settled communities and not offering something good to the newcomers? Does he share my wish to get a grip on that, so that we can properly plan our public services? The note that was slipped out—fortunately Mr Speaker allowed this urgent question—does not explain that discrepancy or deal with the fundamental point that if someone comes here, works and gets a national insurance number, we must provide public facilities for them.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for allowing me to clarify those points, and today’s statement from the ONS is clear. As Glen Watson, the deputy national statistician for population and public policy, said:
“We are confident the International Passenger Survey remains the best available way of measuring long-term migration to the UK.”
My right hon. Friend correctly highlighted the pressure on public services, and the Government remain committed to reducing net migration to the long-term sustainable levels that existed before the previous Labour Government. We remain focused on achieving that, which is why we have taken steps to reform the visa system and to confront illegal migration. Measures in the Immigration Bill, which the House approved earlier this week, are pivotal to that.
The ONS is clear that we should not be looking at national insurance numbers for an assessment of the pressures of migration. Some have suggested that leaving the EU will in some way deal with the migration issue, but we need only consider the examples of other countries that have decided to be outside the EU yet have free movement and pay into the EU budget. There is an idea that things would be better outside the EU, but I find it inconceivable that we would have access to the single market and not have those issues of free movement.
We must also stress the important achievements of the Prime Minister in his renegotiation, and in putting the welfare brake into effect and dealing with some of those pull factors, as well as important steps on deregulation. He secured important elements in that renegotiation for the benefit not just of the UK, but of the EU as a whole. We must grow that economy and see other European nations succeeding and creating jobs and employment in the way that this country has done. I recognise the concerns that my right hon. Friend has rightly highlighted about public services. Those issues remain a concern of this Government, but we have taken, are taking and will continue to take action to see net migration figures reduce to sustainable levels, and to address concerns about public services and the pressures on our communities.
Unlike my notorious predecessor in Wolverhampton South West, I see some positives to immigration. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) prays in aid the pressure on GPs—and there are pressures—but many GPs in the United Kingdom, particularly in areas such as mine, have trained overseas and are helping our constituents. The European Union brings us jobs, prosperity and environmental benefits through shared programmes, and it increases the sovereignty and security of our country. One in five carers looking after our growing older population have come to Britain from the EU and elsewhere, and it is currently estimated that 1.2 million UK citizens are taking advantage of the free movement of labour and are working or living overseas in the EU. It is a two-way process.
On the statement from the ONS, Glen Watson said this morning:
“National Insurance number registrations are not a good indicator of long term-migration. This research shows that many people who register for National Insurance stay in the UK for less than a year, which is the minimum stay for a long-term migrant according to the internationally recognised definition.”
I am grateful to the Library for its helpful brief, dated 8 September 2015, in which it cites the HMRC national insurance manual, which says, among other things:
“Initially applicants need to make an application”—
for a national insurance number—
“by phone…They may then be required to attend an interview at a DWP JobCentrePlus office, as HMRC’s guidance explains”.
It then goes on to cite the guidance. I suspect that, like me, the right hon. Member for Wokingham, when he turned 15, got his first job and had to go in person to apply for a national insurance number. He shakes his head. That is what I had to do and that was the general system then, but perhaps he did not start work at 15 in a factory, as I did. The Government should look again at the system, rather than simply mailing out national insurance numbers. I am not advocating a change; I am advocating that they look again at the desirability of the system of face-to-face interviews for everyone.
The hon. Gentleman’s last point is obviously a matter for colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, and clearly we continue to assess these matters, but his key point was about the long term versus the short term. The clear statements from the ONS highlight that the right measure to look at is the long-term immigration measure through the international passenger survey data. That is the clearest way to set out the pressures of migration. The ONS has also said very clearly that national insurance numbers are not an appropriate measure of assessment for that purpose. Yes, they indicate trends or patterns, but for overall net migration numbers the international passenger survey remains conclusively the best measure we have, and it is right that the Government use it, as we have been doing consistently, in line with the UN definitions for that mechanism. I note what he says and his endorsement of the ONS’s report this morning.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the report by the London School of Economics this morning demonstrating that wages in this country have continued to rise strongly since the first flood of arrivals to this country from Poland and elsewhere, and that the fall in wages in recent years was plainly caused by the deep recession—the worst since the second world war—in 2007? This refutes other anti-immigrant arguments that some of the Brexiteers keep using in the present campaign. Does he accept that the real migrant crisis facing him and this country is the problem of how to deal, in a civilised and effective way, with the flood of people coming from war and anarchy in the middle east and north Africa, and that the problem is not Polish construction workers and Romanian nurses, who make a valuable contribution to the economic life of this country?
I must confess that I have not had the opportunity to see the LSE report to which my right hon. and learned Friend has referred, but I shall seek it out after I have left the Chamber. He clearly makes a strong point about the challenges we face in dealing with the migration crisis, and obviously the Government are taking clear steps, both in region and in Europe, to respond to and deal with that. On the issue of new EU members, the Government are clear on how we would use our veto if we were not satisfied with the terms on which a country was to join the EU—in terms of convergence with the economies of the EU and those issues, which we recognise, of free movement. We have that veto and will certainly use it, if we are not satisfied with the terms of entry.
I am indeed, Mr Speaker. I welcome the publication of the data this morning because it can only help to give us a better understanding of migration patterns, notwithstanding the fact that, on their own, I do not think that these national insurance registrations are a reliable indicator for measuring long-term international migration.
It is vital that we remember that migration is a global phenomenon, not just a European issue, and that it is very much a two-way street. In Scotland, we are all too aware that for generations migration has meant that many of our citizens have moved abroad. Even now, many of our most highly qualified young people leave to build careers in other parts of the world. I am also conscious that in some sectors of our economy we are heavily dependent on migrant labour, not least for our NHS, but for other parts of our public and private sectors. Migrant workers not only contribute to our economy, but help to anchor the jobs of the local workforce in the UK. What assessment have the Government made of the number of UK industries and UK jobs that depend on the free movement of labour within the EU? Will the Minister be forthright in dispelling myths about migration and in articulating the contribution that migrant workforces make to our economy?
As a Government, we have always been clear that we want to attract the skilled and the talented, the brightest and the best to contribute to the UK’s economic growth. We therefore have a very clear policy for visa nationals from outside the EU in response to that. When it comes to the EU, what we are more concerned about is the perhaps artificial draw that might come from benefits, and we also want to ensure that we have a skilled workforce in the UK to meet the needs of the economy. That explains the Government’s important work on apprenticeships through the apprenticeship levy and indeed the skills levy that we will introduce in respect of skill visas. We want to provide people from this country with the right skills to meet those needs so that we are not overly reliant on labour from outside the UK.
The publication of the NI figures is simply one more confirmation that there is no chance—zero—of us fulfilling our promise to the British people to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands, unless there is a restriction on the free movement of labour within the European Union. The Minister mentioned the renegotiation, so will he tell us why the Government did not attempt in any way to get a reduction in that free movement as part of that renegotiation?
We remain focused on reducing net migration to those sustainable levels, and my right hon. Friend well knows that the renegotiation to which I referred brought about the welfare brake and indeed improved competitiveness across the UK by dealing with unnecessary bureaucracy. If we look at the differences between economies across the EU, we can see how that reformist agenda that the Prime Minister has championed is essential. As I have said, we are taking steps within the UK to ensure that we have the right skills for the UK workforce as well.
There is nothing new in an influx of east Europeans. The displaced persons system that operated immediately after the end of the second world war helped millions of people from around Europe who were without jobs and without states. I worked with many east Europeans in the pits on the basis that they were members of our union, the National Union of Mineworkers, and got paid the same money as we did. They did not undermine other workers in the traditional industries and some of them were very involved in the trade union movement. Today, however, thousands and millions of people are on the move, but the Government cannot see the possibility of doing what we did in the late ’40s by insisting on union recognition, the same pay for everybody and no undermining of workers’ rights. The net result would be no problem at all, and UK Independence party’s rise would disappear like snowflakes on an oven.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point in his customary colourful way, but the facts that we see before us show that national insurance numbers—which, after all, are what the urgent question was about—are not a good measure when it comes to the long-term issue of migration. The hon. Gentleman may be more interested in talking about snowflakes and union recognition, but I think that those are matters for another debate.
I am not sure that I saw the Minister last night at the world premiere of “Brexit: The Movie”. Unfortunately, it is not a war film.
A few months ago, the Prime Minister was telling us that unless he got his way on migration, he would consider leaving the European Union. That involved a minor change in migration figures and controls. The Prime Minister now says that if we left the EU, there might indeed be a third world war. I have a graph here, so that Members can see the difference between the two figures. Does not that mismatch show that we have no idea of the net migration figure? Migration is out of control. We need to regain control of our borders, and that is what the Minister should have done by means of an emergency brake.
I was not at the opening night of “Brexit: The Movie” to discover whether my hon. Friend had a starring role in it, so we shall have to wait and see.
The Office for National Statistics makes very clear that, in its judgment, the passenger survey is still the right way of assessing net migration, and that is the measure that the Government will continue to use.
May I remind my right hon. Friend that the report produced by the Public Administration Committee during the last Parliament cast grave doubt on the accuracy and reliability of the immigration statistics? The annual passenger survey is just that: a survey of a sample of passengers entering the United Kingdom. Those statistics may well be “the best way” of measuring our immigration, but the Committee decided that they were not a reliable way of measuring immigration, and the very large rise in national insurance numbers shows that there is something else going on.
May I also remind my right hon. Friend that the last census showed that the British population was larger by 467,000 than the Government had understood it to be, and that a very large proportion of that was due to unrecorded immigration? We do not have control over immigration into this country, because all EU citizens and their dependants have the right to come here, and the Government have no means of excluding them even if they are criminals and terrorists.
We do, in fact, exclude from the EU those who may be involved in criminality or terrorism, and the Prime Minister’s renegotiation has actually strengthened our ability to remove them. As for the annual passenger survey, the Office for National Statistics has made it very clear that it remains the best measure for determining net migration. The national insurance numbers do not provide such a measure. I am sure that the ONS, as an independent body, will continue to review the position and assess what improvement may be made, but today it has been specific in stating that the passenger survey is the most effective measure.
Can the Minister confirm that the number of Jobcentre Plus offices that are able to issue national insurance numbers has been reduced? I have been told of someone who applied in York, only to be told that they had to travel to Hull to get a national insurance number.
This is going to be a slightly different question from the one you were expecting, Mr Speaker. I am delighted that the Office for National Statistics has published this report to bust the myth that these national insurance numbers expose something about the immigration system. The report states explicitly that the main contributors to these national insurance numbers are people who are here for less than a year and will therefore not be included in the Government’s immigration targets and have nothing whatever to do with them. To be kind to those who are arguing the case for Brexit, I think they believe that short-term migrants are as bad as long-term migrants in many cases. That being the case, will the Minister acknowledge that many groups of short-term migrants—including 27,000 teachers, 28,000 care workers and 60,000 seasonal workers in the farming industry—do tremendous things for this country, both in our public services and in the private sector?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that clear point. He recognises, as I do, the benefit that we gain from the short-term migration of EU workers. Others who fall into that category include students on short-term courses, short-term contractors and, as he has pointed out, seasonal workers. The point is that this migration is short term: those people leave and therefore do not contribute to the long-term pressures.
Is it not the case that national insurance numbers that have been issued are not subsequently removed? Has the Minister made an estimate of how many of the numbers relate to people who are no longer here? Will he also gently ask the Brexit campaign not to descend into dog-whistle politics over immigration?
It is important that we focus on the issues at hand this morning—namely, the national insurance numbers and the best measure for assessing long-term migration. That is what the Office for National Statistics has clearly set out, and that is the issue that we should focus on. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the national insurance number system, but clearly that is not the best mechanism for assessing the overall impact.
These figures clearly lay bare the fact that the Government are powerless to control EU immigration for the benefit of our public services. How do the Government justify our present immigration system, which unfairly discriminates against economic migrants from outside the EU? Would it not be better, on leaving the EU, to design a fairer immigration policy with a level playing field for nationals of all countries, some of whom might be better qualified?
I will leave it to the hon. Gentleman to make the case for having a visa system for all EU nationals, which is what he appears to be suggesting. The Government have a clear approach to controlling migration from outside the EU through our skills-based visas and through other routes, as well as to dealing with the pressures that we have highlighted, with economic competitiveness and with draws such as the welfare system.
With discrepancies of 1.2 million national insurance numbers being reported, and with EU immigration increasing, it has become harder to tell whether new arrivals will stay for just a few months or for more than a year. This means that passengers from the EU who want to live permanently in Britain might have been incorrectly designated as visitors. What has been done to ensure that people coming from the EU are correctly identified, particularly in these difficult times when accurate figures are vital and being transparent is key to creating trust among the British people?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need for clarity and certainty in relation to the numbers. We have looked to the Office for National Statistics, which operates independently of me, of the Home Office and of other Government Departments, to give us that clarity. It has judged that the international passenger survey is the best and most appropriate measure for that, and it continues to review, as it does from time to time, how best to ensure that it captures effective data from its interviews and how those data are extrapolated to produce its quarterly numbers.
I recognise what the Minister has said about the reliability of the national insurance figures as a measure of immigration, but he must accept that there is significant uncertainty and ambiguity in the perception of the complete picture. Given the significant pressure on public services, I urge the Minister to respond to those concerns and perhaps outline what he thinks could be done to provide a more balanced overall picture of immigration and to address the grave concerns out there.
Obviously, one of the key elements is that we need a strong economy to be able to support our public services. As for the pressures on particular communities, the Government are introducing a controlling migration fund to assist those that may be specifically affected by population increases linked to migration, and we will continue with reforms to control migration.
The Minister knows that I represent a border constituency with a natural hinterland. I have constituents who cannot get national insurance numbers. They have worked in the south and are pensioned from the south, but they pay tax in the UK and have been issued with UK tax numbers under double taxation rules. However, they cannot get national insurance numbers. Can the Minister assure me that the sensitivity around the statistics and the nonsense about EU migrants are not factors in their predicament?
I will certainly ensure that his comments about people’s ability to obtain national insurance numbers are passed on to colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions. I point the hon. Gentleman to the ONS’s clear statement on the lack of a connection between national insurance numbers and long-term migration and to what I have already indicated about the best measures.
It is quite clear from the Minister’s answer to the urgent question that there are more EU migrants here at any one time than was previously thought. That is now not in doubt. I suspect that the Minister is a good poker player, because he can clearly bluff and misrepresent the facts.
Indeed, Mr Speaker. What I was trying to say, clearly rather clumsily, was that the Minister would be a very good poker player. He is an excellent Minister, and I want to give him some career guidance. The Prime Minister clearly requires that immigration numbers come down to the tens of thousands, but these NI numbers prove that that cannot possibly happen while we are in the EU, so could he advise the Prime Minister to change his position on the EU and recommend that people vote to come out, and the Minister can keep his job?
My hon. Friend has given an exposition of the position. However, there is clearly large-scale EU migration to this country by people who want to work, and our public services and many of our service industries depend on those people coming to do those jobs. In my constituency, the number of EU nationals has grown from 1,000 in 2010 to 10,000 in just five years. It cannot be said that that is not a long-term trend, because it clearly is. At the same time, when it comes to people from the Commonwealth, some of my constituents cannot get their relatives in and businesses cannot get skilled people in to do jobs that are required.
Clearly, the net migration statistics show the challenges that remain in relation to both EU and non-EU migration, and how those numbers continue to be much higher than we want them to be. That is why we continue on our reform agenda. On visas from outside the EU, we have the shortage occupation list to prioritise those skills that are particularly needed, so that visas can be granted where there are gaps.
The statistics published today show that the number of national insurance numbers has risen exponentially since 2003, from just over 100,000 to 700,000. I do not believe that what the Minister has said about the data clarifying the issue is the case, because there is a variation in the estimate for the short-term element of more than 200,000. The Government think that, over the next 14 years, 3 million more people will come here from the EU to settle on a long-term basis—at current rates, the figure will be 5 million. This has a tremendous impact in every constituency, including mine, on housing, jobs and services. I just ask: do the Government not care about that?
Order. May I gently point out that listening to and observing our proceedings today are quite a large number of schoolchildren? If they asked questions in class that are as long as the questions we are getting today, they would probably be put in detention.
I certainly would not want to end up in detention, so I shall try to be as brief as I can in my answer. Let me direct my hon. Friend to the report, as it says that short-term migration to the UK
“largely accounts for the recent differences”
on the number of long-term migrants and that the international passenger survey is the “best source of information”. Clearly, we care about pressure on public services, which is why I have consistently made the point during this urgent question about the continued reforms that the Government are making to control migration.
That last question warranted not a detention but a gold star. I am a great believer that the waves of migration that our country has had have been unbelievably beneficial for the country I am proud to represent in this place. However, I am disappointed with the Government, because on 10 March I asked for these numbers to be released and yet for some reason, through the cloak and daggers and smoke-filled rooms behind different Ministries, these supposedly benign figures could not be released at that point. Why was that?
A clear amount of detailed work has been conducted by the ONS to produce today’s report, drawing together different information from the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and its own assessment. I hope my hon. Friend will recognise that the report comes independently from the ONS, in order to give that assurance and clarity, which I think it does give.
The ONS clearly says that the IPS is the best measure available to assess our long-term net migration numbers. We will continue to see how issues such as the availability of exit check data may help to enrich and support the ONS’s analysis, but its report’s conclusions today make it clear that the IPS remains the best measure.
National insurance numbers are obtained only by those who want to work legally and pay their tax or claim benefits. Inevitably, some EU nationals will be in the UK working illegally. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of EU nationals working cash in hand without a national insurance number, taking the jobs of our constituents? What is he doing to prevent illegal working by EU nationals?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about illegal working. It is why the new Immigration Bill, which we have been debating this week, includes new measures to target those engaging workers who do not have those rights to be here. Indeed, we will continue to work across government with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions to better identify those who are not complying with the rules and to take firm action against them.
There is no prospect of Turkey joining the EU any time soon. It needs to undertake significant steps as part of reform of a range of different elements, so that issue is not relevant to this. Again, let me underline how the Government will use their veto against any new country seeking to join the EU if they are not satisfied with the terms of that, particularly in relation to convergence and the impact that that would have on labour markets across the EU.
In my constituency, Boston has seen the highest level of eastern European migration anywhere in the UK, driven largely by seasonal work. I agree with the Minister that NI numbers would be a terrible way of measuring migration in an area such as mine, but does he agree that, in areas that have seen unusual concentrations of migration, we do need a better way of measuring migration if we are adequately to plan for public services?
Although I entirely recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes about the particular pressures that certain areas in the UK have experienced as a consequence of migration, I also recognise the benefits that are attached in terms of the contribution to our economy. It is why we are seeking to introduce the controlling migration fund, which will assist areas that are experiencing that growth in population linked to migration.
The Government’s case rests on ignoring the arguments set out by my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions earlier this week, particularly in relation to people shuttling to and fro for a few months at a time. That is a problem that the Minister’s case would ignore by looking at the passenger service. If he will not listen to my right hon. Friend, will he at least listen to Lord Rose, the chairman of the pro-EU Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, who told the Treasury Committee that the wages of the lowest paid would rise if we left the EU and took control of migration?
I point my hon. Friend not only to the contribution that those who arrive here make to our economy—it is a net contribution of around £2.5 billion—and how important it is for our economy, but to the steps that we are taking to reduce those artificial pull factors. We need to focus not just on those pressures in our local areas, but on how we get the right skills for our economy to ensure that we are giving young people in this country the best opportunity, which is precisely what our apprenticeships programme is all about.
The Minister has sought to defend the Government’s position by continually referring to short-term workers, but will he acknowledge that short-term workers are replaced by further short-term workers, and therefore the pressure on our public services is continuous, as are the diminished opportunities for UK citizens to get those jobs.
Assessing the pressure on the population is about long-term net migration. That is the clear measure that we use, and that is the UN definition. It remains absolutely the appropriate way to assess those issues in respect of the potential growth in population and it is why we do remain focused on the measure that the ONS has clearly set out today, which is the passenger survey, and that assessment of long-term net migration.