Sir Andrew Green is Chairman of Migrationwatch UK
The furore caused by the Public Administration Select Committee’s report on immigration statistics stems largely from the language they adopted. The facts of the matter have been known for some time and do not affect the thrust of government policies, nor the success that they are now delivering.
To describe the target of one of the government’s most important and sensitive policies as “little more than guess work” was bound to be jumped on by the immigration industry and the left wing press. It got the headlines, but has not added to public understanding of a complex and sensitive issue.
The roots of this problem go back to the decision by the Conservative government in 1994 to abolish exit controls for travellers to the European Union. This was followed by a decision by Labour in 1998 to abolish exit checks to the rest of the world. As a result, for nearly twenty years, no British government has had any idea who is in the country.
The problem is a challenging one, since roughly 100 million people arrive in Britain every year of whom 60 million are British and the other 40 million are foreigners. To have an accurate record of their comings and goings would be a massive IT operation. Both the Labour and Conservative governments have been attempting this for a number of years. but have run into both practical difficulties and objections from the European Commission who believe that such efforts are a diminution of the right to free movement. Like most IT projects, its completion date is going backwards and its cost is going upwards.
It is important to recognise, however, that the census provides a cross check on the accuracy or otherwise of the annual immigration figures. They have not been too far out, although the most recent census revealed that the International Passenger Survey (IPS) had missed nearly half a million East Europeans between 2004 and 2011. This was partly because they had inadequate cover at the minor airports at which they arrived and partly because many might well have changed their intentions after their arrival. (They only count as migrants if they declare an intention to stay for more than a year).
It is statistically the case that, given the relatively small sample sizes, the margin of error is plus or minus 17 per cemt. When we enquired about increasing the sample size, we were told that the margin of error could be halved but at a cost of about £3 million a year. The Home Office apparently judged that, in the current financial climate, there were better ways of spending the money.
Whatever its limitations, the immigration target has proved to be extremely valuable. It has acted as a focus both for public opinion and for Government policy. The latter is especially important, as many government departments are inherently pro-immigration. The annual immigration numbers have also confirmed the direction of travel. If net migration has been brought down from even approximately 250,000 to 150,000 in three years, the government must be on the right course.
Indeed so. This is the first government in many decades to take a serious approach to controlling immigration and certainly the first to make any significant impact on it. It is unfortunate that the waters should have been mudded in this way.