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Volume 774: debated on Monday 12 September 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to determine accurately immigration into the United Kingdom.

My Lords, immigration figures are estimates produced by the Office for National Statistics based on the International Passenger Survey. These estimates have been assessed by the UK Statistics Authority as having national statistics designation, being accurate and reliable for measuring immigration to the UK. The ONS continues to take steps to refine the survey design and to publish information on how figures relate to other sources.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. Indeed, the ONS does rely on the International Passenger Survey, which asks less than 0.7% of arrivals of their intentions, on a voluntary basis and with no verification. As the Minister knows, UK border officers are not allowed, under EU freedom of movement legislation, to ask arrivals whether they are immigrants or temporary visitors. Therefore, we have a situation where, over the past five years since July 2010, the ONS estimates for immigration are less than half of the national insurance numbers that have been issued to the same group. Does not the Minister agree that, given the events of the summer, the British public deserve better analysis and statistics?

My Lords, there are various sources of statistical information and all of them useful in the round. My noble friend talked specifically of the discrepancy between national insurance numbers and the ONS figures. That is due, in the main, to large numbers of short-term migrants who stay for less than 12 months. The official figures are based on the UN international standard definition of a long-term migrant: one who changes their country of residence for a year or more.

My Lords, yesterday Amber Rudd said that there would be further restrictions on international students coming into the UK to help to reduce the immigration target. Is the Minister aware that international students currently contribute more than £7 billion a year to our economy, delivering 137,000 jobs to our universities and their communities, that student numbers are expected to double over the next 15 years, and that some of them could come to the UK? Given that, can the Minister explain why the Home Office has declared this, whereas the three Ministers for Brexit keep going on about how important it is to trade outside the EU? This seems a bit of an own goal.

My Lords, we want students here who will contribute to this country the skills that we need. In fact, there has been an increase of more than 39% over the past few years to Russell group universities. We have taken successful steps to clamp down on some of the bogus colleges that do not provide that sort of training.

Why, oh why, are students classified as immigrants? They are not immigrants unless they stay here beyond their courses. When they stay beyond their degree or other qualification, they could and should be classified as immigrants. The present artificial classification is causing all sorts of quite unnecessary problems, not least, as has already been said, for our universities.

My Lords, they are classified as students because when they come here they use our services and they generally come here for more than a year. That falls within the definition.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain? In her Answer to my noble friend Lord Leigh, she said that the discrepancy between national insurance numbers and the figures was because people were here on a short-stay basis. How does she know that?

My Lords, people may come here to work long term or short term. If they are here to work for, say, three months, which many people are, and then go home, they will not be counted in the long-term immigration figures.

Is it now government policy once again to reduce the net migration figure to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands? If that is the policy, as I gather it was from listening to Amber Rudd on the “Andrew Marr Show” yesterday, will she give us any compelling reason why we should believe that promise any more than the promise made by Mr Cameron?

My Lords, I can give that assurance. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made clear, it will take time and we are quite clear about that.

My Lords, coming back to the question of students, I hope that the Government have taken on board the fact that students are quite different from other immigrants. When they go back, they bring great credit—and great profit—to this country by using the standards that we set in engineering and other disciplines and commissioning work from firms in this country, as well as establishing a network of good will around the world.

I totally agree with my noble friend, and that is why we want not only to train but also to retain some of the brightest and best students from around the world so that they can contribute to our economy.

My Lords, does the Minister accept the importance of accurate information that is publicly available, especially on an issue where information is often secondary to anxieties, fears and sometimes prejudice? Can she also tell us what progress is being made on determining the number of people who leave the UK?

I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that accurate information is absolutely vital. Exit checks will tell us how many people are leaving, and the more accurate information we have, the better we will know exactly what the figures are.

Immigration is not just about knowing what the numbers are; it is also about making sure that people we do not want to see coming in are actually being stopped from doing so. The Adam Smith Institute has just produced a report saying that Britain’s Border Force has been so,

“starved of funds and neglected”,

that it is no wonder it has been stretched so thin despite the terror threat rising and passenger numbers rocketing, with the report going on to claim more specifically that more than 4,000 “high-risk” flights could be landing in the UK each year without proper security checks. It also indicates that, while passenger numbers have risen by 20% since 2010 and are set to rise by another 43% by 2030, the funding for the Border Force has been slashed, with spending per passenger down 25% and morale at an all-time low. Can the Minister say whether the Government believe that the Adam Smith Institute analysis misrepresents the current situation?

My Lords, I have to confess to not having read the document, but what I can say is that exit check data and so on will enhance our understanding of where people are moving to and what they are doing when they do choose to move. Exit check data will definitely enhance our understanding of overstaying over time, but the Government have always been clear that it is not possible to put a figure on the number of people who are residing illegally in the UK at any one time.

My Lords, could it be that some of the university places that are occupied by foreign students might be better occupied by some of our own young people, so that they receive the benefits of a good university education?

My Lords, the Government have removed the cap on university places because we want a university system that is open to all but also open to the brightest and the best around the world.