Friday, 22 June 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and...

An interesting story on the BBC today.  Apparently the last Labour government "got it wrong" on immigration.  What is as interesting as Miliband's shift is the reporting of immigration and the numbers.  Take the following from the story:
"But its [the Labour government at the time] estimates that only about 13,000 people a year would come to the country were soon proved wrong, with a peak net migration figure, from the EU and elsewhere, of 252,000 in 2010."
The estimate of the number of people who would be coming into the UK from the 8 extra EU accession countries who joined in 2004 is compared to the peak of net migration from everywhere that was taking place six years later.  Unsurprisingly, the net migration to the UK from the entire world six years after accession was considerably higher than the initial estimate of how many Accession Countries' citizens would exert their right to free movement by moving to the UK.  Comparing these two numbers in this way is simply dishonest!

It is worth taking a look at the actual figures.  As with all ONS data sites, it is unnecessarily difficult to find the data you might be looking for.  The spreadsheet titled "Provisional Long Term International Migration (LTIM) estimates September 2011 (Excel sheet 601Kb)" seems to contain some useful time series data, so let's start there.

The Accession Treaty came into force in May 2004, that is when citizens of eight Eastern European countries received the right to work in the UK.  The initial estimate was that around 13,000 people a year would come.  According to the data, 49,000 had come by December 2004.  In the first full year for which there is data, 71,000 arrived.  Did the government underestimate the number of people who would come?  Yes.  Did they underestimate the number as badly as the BBC's figures above would suggest?  By several orders of magnitude, no.  We should remember however that estimating the number of people who will move before they actually move is a very difficult thing to do.  One imagines one would conduct surveys, but it would be very expensive to conduct a proper random sampling exercise.  Any cost-cutting methodologies (eg. telephone / internet surveys) would risk over-sampling people with a better lot in life more likely to stay.

But how important is immigration from the EU Accession countries and how important was it overall.  The answer is, not very.  The graph below shows net immigration by source country.  The blue line shows the total net immigration to the UK of Non-British Nationals.  The red line shows net immigration from the Accession countries, and the green line shows net immigration from Non-EU countries.  While there is a spike in the Accession year, 2004, this seems to have been caused more by immigration from Non-EU countries than from the Accession countries.

What may be of more concern is the reason people are coming to the UK.  In the year to September 2011 (the latest for which I have been able to find figures) 50% of gross immigration to the UK was for the purposes of formal study.  In some ways this should not come as a surprise.  The UK has a strong presence in international academia and some very strong brand names in this area.  Education is actually a good export industry to the UK.  The really good news is that if we restrict attention to immigration from outside the EU, this number goes up to 62%.  That is good because non-EU students can be charged the full economic cost of their education while EU students have the right to study under the same conditions as domestic students.

The bad news is that the government has decided students coming for formal study is the area of immigration where they can get "results" quickly in terms of fulfilling their promise to bring immigration down to tens rather than hundreds of thousands.  It is almost as if they have decided to sacrifice a valuable export industry in order to fulfill a political promise.

I am not completely insensitive to people's concerns about immigration.  I understand that when the amount you charge for the services you provide is forced down because immigrants enter and offer the service more cheaply, that is distressing.  That it is better for the general public who can now afford more of those services is scant comfort, though it be the truth.  The economic arguments here are in fact very similar to those for free trade.  Yet the political argument for free trade has been fought and won in the past, and so I have hope that the political arguments about immigration can also be fought and won.  

One branch of the argument must emphasize the economic benefits of allowing more economic immigration.  Although lowering the price of some labour services is bad for the people who provide those services, it is good for the general public at large who consume those services.  Even if this argument is not accepted, it should be generally accepted that no one's lot in life will be improved by reducing the number of people who come to the UK to study.

While we have to acknowledge that more people put additional strain on the UK's already overstretched infrastructure, this is an argument for building more infrastructure rather than limiting population growth.  As an aside the UK's infrastructure would be overstretched without any immigration.  What population limiting strategies would then be suggested by those who want to solve the infrastructure problem by limiting immigration?

However there is another branch of the argument that has yet to be tried.  Positive net immigration is a sign that people want to live here rather than where they were born.  What better sign could there be of our success as a nation?  Positive net immigration is the best evidence available that the UK, for all its problems, is a good place to live.  As such, it is something we should, as a nation, be quite proud of.  


  1. Of the 50% who came "for formal study" how many attended state universities (as your comments about charging full fees would imply) and how many went to "Private Colleges" or Private Language Schools" - see

  2. I take your point. Undoubtedly some of these students will be coming to so-called "bogus" colleges for "bogus" courses. However the attempts to tighten this up will impact on more established universities with strong international brands. See the Torygraph article here: