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European Union Migration: National Insurance

Volume 771: debated on Thursday 12 May 2016


My Lords, I wish to repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable friend James Brokenshire. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, for years, UK migration figures have been measured independently, according to the agreed United Nations definitions. Today’s report by the independent Office for National Statistics is a clear endorsement of their validity. I welcome the clarity that the ONS has provided on this important issue, and I welcome this opportunity to clear up some of the misconceptions on this important issue of national insurance numbers and what they may mean regarding EU immigration.

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 this issue and published its conclusions this morning. I stress that this is independent work carried out by an independent statistical authority.

The 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. It 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.

National insurance numbers can be obtained by anyone working in the UK for just a few weeks, and the ONS explains clearly why 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. We have always had short-term migrants who do not get picked up in the long-term statistics. Short-term migration will not have an impact on population growth and population pressures, as those migrants, by definition, leave the UK within 12 months of arriving. It would be completely wrong to distort or misrepresent these figures any further following the independent ONS’s conclusions. The Government look forward to the ONS’s follow-up note setting out its analysis in greater detail later in the year.

I welcome these conclusions. I hope they provide reassurance to those concerned that national insurance data could suggest that the published migration statistics were inaccurate. This Government take very seriously the need to reduce net migration to long-term sustainable levels. 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 clearly integral to what we are seeking to achieve. I am pleased that today the ONS has, with its normal impartiality, confirmed that the statistics we use, based on the International Passenger Survey, do have the necessary integrity and remain the best measure for understanding net migration”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. The number of national insurance numbers has never been a good guide to the number of British people resident in the UK, never mind anybody else. The report from the ONS suggests that there have long been differences between, for example, the number of EU8 migrants and the total number of short and long-term migrants, which has consistently been above the number of NINos. Has the Minister’s department had the opportunity to compare the NINo data set out today with, for example, the RTI data that his department holds, self-assessment, or the DWP L2 and tax credit benefit data? That would enable him to make a judgment and perhaps make it quite clear that many of these people are coming in as short-term visitors and not long-term workers.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. Today’s report focused on whether the International Passenger Survey was the correct measure of long-term migration. There are other data sources, such as those the noble Baroness referred to. Of course, the report stressed that work on independent data sources such as HMRC and DWP data is ongoing, and there will be further such work. However, those are complementary, and it has now been established that the best way of looking at this is the International Passenger Survey.

My Lords, although born in Britain and British, I lived abroad for almost 20 years. I found on my return that my national insurance number was exactly the same as the one I had when I left. Does the Minister agree that national insurance numbers have never been intended to or used to define immigration or even current residency in this country, and that anybody attempting to use those numbers in that way is quite deliberately scaremongering?

I agree with the noble Baroness about the use of national insurance numbers. I do not know whether people are using that information to scaremonger or not. She is absolutely right that national insurance numbers are not there to monitor migration. We want people to register for national insurance numbers so that when they come here to work, even on a short-term basis, they contribute to this country.

What most people do not really appreciate—of course, the media never explain it; they exploit it—is that millions of female pensioners in this country carry two national insurance numbers because their pension is based on their late husband’s contributions. That number has to remain active in the system. That is why the numbers are always greater than the population, and always will be. There is no connection whatsoever between the number of active or inactive national insurance numbers and the number of people present in the country.

I agree with the noble Lord. We want national insurance numbers to remain and to be the same so that when people come back and start working, as they increasingly do nowadays, we have a consistent record of what they are doing in terms of national insurance. The noble Lord is absolutely right that some people may have two numbers. Short-term migration and long-term residency are different things, and the International Passenger Survey is the best measure of long-term residency, which is what has an impact on housing and services such as the NHS.

My noble friend got through his whole Statement without telling us what the difference is between the numbers which are based on national insurance registrations, which give people entitlement to benefits and other things, and those based on the passenger survey. What has the difference been in the numbers during the past five years? Can my noble friend explain this to me, because I do not understand it? How can he argue that people working here, even if only for a short period, does not put pressure on schools, the health service, local authority services and housing? Can we take it that the Treasury will in future enable local authorities to be funded on the basis of the real, rather than the theoretical, pressures they face?

I first point out to my noble friend that it was not my Statement; it was the Answer in the other place of the Immigration Minister.

I agree that it is the Government, but I am just pointing out a factual error that my noble friend made. I cannot give the precise figures for the past five years because I do not have them to hand, but I will write to my noble friend if we have them. On his point about services and short-term benefits, it turns out, again based on some details pointed out today, that EU migrants produce a net benefit to this country in the amount of tax and national insurance they pay compared to the services they use. Of course, someone who comes here for a holiday job has to have somewhere to live, but that is not part of the serious housing problem we have for long-term residents of this country.

In his Statement, the Minister referred to “long-term sustainable levels” as being the level of migration this Government are looking for. Will he confirm to the House that the Government are still committed to reducing long-term net migration to “tens of thousands”, which was the ambition of the Prime Minister now several years ago—in each year since when, the figures have increased?

I believe that is the target the Government are aiming for, and I certainly have not been told that it has changed. The question is, what would the noble Lord like to see happen? At the moment, we believe that being in the single market and having free movement of people is a net benefit to this country.

My Lords, would not this confusion be reduced if we returned to discussing a biometric-based national identity card, whereby people would be swiped in when they entered the United Kingdom and swiped out when they left?

My Lords, this is a well-worn theme from the noble Lord and it is slightly outside the scope of today’s Statement on the Office for National Statistics report, but I take his point and I am sure he will raise it again.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that this is not just a British problem? I have been sitting here thinking that I still have a US federal tax number—I am not sure about my US insurance number. And I am not sure from my three months working in Paris some years ago—during which, I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, we put our daughter into a French school, thus increasing the strain on their system—whether I still have a French number, but this is the two-way aspect to it. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, has all sorts of things in the French tax system—maybe in the French national insurance system—from residence there.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that access to the National Health Service is defined by ordinary residence and therefore is not signified simply by the possession of a national insurance number? I fear that, too often in the National Health Service, if somebody has a national insurance number they are treated as if they were ordinarily resident. Is it not therefore welcome that the Government are looking to tighten up all these issues in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech, including where migrants do not have proper access and should pay for NHS services, because that will assist the NHS, which clearly has financial pressures?

Of course, the Government have taken measures to prevent EU migrants as well having full access to benefits for four years: child benefit, for example, will no longer be sent home at UK rates. As to the NHS, it is true that some people contribute. The important thing from the NHS point of view is that, regardless of where you come from, if you are in desperate need of medical help you will get it in this country.

Does not the number of British people going backwards and forwards to Spain, for example—2 million plus people are in that sort of situation—also counterbalance the discrepancies that we have?

Can the Minister disentangle for us the impact on the figures of the huge number of annual visitors, whom we wish to encourage, and of overseas students coming to this country? We seem to be in a fog of numbers.

My Lords, the figures that we are concerned about and that the ONS survey takes into account cover all passengers who come into and go out of the country. But the main migration figures are based on UN definitions of people who are resident here for more than 12 months—so we do not count visitors in those figures.