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Immigration Statistics

Volume 789: debated on Monday 12 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is their objective to maintain authoritative immigration statistics to allow the development of sound policies and plans for the future.

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to complete and authoritative migration statistics. These are produced by the independent Office for National Statistics following best international practice and are overseen by the UK Statistics Authority. The ONS has embarked on an ambitious programme of work to improve migration statistics and the Government are supporting this programme, including by providing the ONS with access to data held by government departments.

My Lords, it is good to hear that the Government are trying to improve matters but does the Minister agree that, as the Brexit vote showed, the public do not have confidence in UK immigration policy? If this is to change, we need more reliable statistics, not least to inform the need for investment in housing, schools, medical infrastructure and even benefits. Can the Minister confirm that the forthcoming White Paper will address this issue and include honest forecasts?

I agree that the public should have confidence in the statistics produced by the ONS, particularly on migration. These are an important input to policies on housing, health, education and other public services. The ONS will use powers in the Digital Economy Act, which has recently passed into legislation, to access data from other government departments. This will complement the information it already has from the IPS. By accessing not only exit data from the Home Office but information from HMRC, from the DfE on school rolls and from GPs on GP lists, it will be able to strengthen and enrich—the word it has used—the statistics on migration, and in turn this will enhance confidence. The Government do not make forecasts on migration but the ONS produces what it calls estimates.

Is there any serious member of Her Majesty’s Government—with the possible exception of the Prime Minister—who does not believe that overseas students should not be included in immigration statistics? Is it not time that this change was made and a message of hope given to our universities?

The noble Lord will recall that this issue was debated extensively by your Lordships when the then Higher Education and Research Bill went through this House. When the Bill left this House an amendment was carried to delete overseas students from the migration figures. When that legislation hit the statute book, that bit was omitted. In the meantime, the ONS will continue to follow the UN standard, which is to count anyone who is here for more than a year as a long-term migrant. That practice is followed by the USA, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. There is an impact on services if people stay here for longer than a year, and the ONS, which is independent, has decided to continue to use the United Nations definition.

Does the Minister recognise that his description of the Bill that left this House was not entirely accurate? It required the Government to change not the statistics but the policy; and to stop treating students as economic migrants, not to stop counting them. Would he further recognise that defective statistical methods have been used to count students leaving after the end of their student visas—one of the false reasons the Government have used to justify their policy?

It is not the case that the Government’s policy has deterred international students from coming to this country. According to the latest figures, study-related visas were up by 8% in 2017 to more than 220,000. The Government have made it absolutely clear that there is no cap on the number of genuine international students coming to this country—they are welcome. We are the second most popular destination after the United States for such students and roughly 40% of our overseas students now come from China, in a competitive market.

Does the Minister recognise that for more than 25 years immigration statistics have been neither authoritative nor accurate either in their generality or in their specifics? When will the Government finally recognise that only an accurate system of counting people in and out will give us such authoritative and accurate statistics, and the only way to do that is through biometric ID cards and visas?

The point made by the noble Lord was also made by the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place. One of the recommendations echoes what he just said:

“We also recommend that the Home Office examine how all entries and exits from major ports in the UK, including for non-visa travellers, can be recorded and that all entry and exit information is then used to aid the analysis of migration flow and to better inform policy decisions”.

The Government will respond to that recommendation before Easter and I am sure that they will take on board the support expressed for that policy by the noble Lord and indeed by others.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that statistics do not exist in a vacuum and that it is important to work on them to show a clear picture both of the contribution made by immigrants and of the competition, if that is what it is, that they may present to UK nationals in the labour market. The noble Lord mentioned information from HMRC. Does he agree that it would be useful to be clear about how much tax immigrants working in this country pay towards our society?

I am sure that the noble Baroness is right. Speaking from memory, I think that tax revenue from the cohort that she mentioned exceeds the amount of benefits paid to those people. I do not have the exact statistics in front of me, but I am sure that one can make available the net contribution of migrants to this country to the labour market.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that reliance on the International Passenger Survey is totally inadequate? The chairman of the public administration committee said recently that the immigration figures are little better than a best guess, while the Royal Geographical Society has said that they are not fit for purpose. Asking less than 0.6% of people who arrive in this country about their intentions without any corroboration or follow-up is surely a wholly inadequate way to measure these statistics.

The IPS interviews 800,000 people per year, which is quite a broad base for a sample. When I asked the ONS about this, it confirmed that the IPS survey continues to be the best source of information to measure long-term international migration. However, as I said in response to my noble friend, it will strengthen that information by accessing data from other government sources which it could not access before. That will enhance the credibility of these figures, and the ONS plans to use the system I have just outlined by the end of 2019 with regular updates. As I have said, this will produce a richer set of statistics.