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In defence of the latest high migration figures

24 November 2023

5:05 AM

24 November 2023

5:05 AM

The debate over migration figures released today seems to be whether or not we’ve reached a new ‘record high’. The Office for National Statistics reports net migration rose 672,000 in the year to June. This would have been a record high if the ONS hadn’t also revised last year’s figures up by a staggering 140,000 to 745,000.

This seems, to me, to be a technicality. Either way, the figure is hovering around its highest point in recent history. Net migration has more than doubled since June 2016, when the UK voted to leave the European Union. The numbers really took off after Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit reforms, which created pathways for graduates to work in the UK and for non-EU migrants to more easily make their way here. There’s no real point in quibbling over when the record was hit: let’s simply agree that, yes, the numbers are very high.

The debate, then, should be whether these levels of net migration have merit. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a debate taking place. Migration-sceptic opinions run deep these days, not just within the Tory party, but within the Labour party, too. The former and current Home Secretaries may take different approaches to this issue – especially in tone – but one thing that unites them is a commitment to ‘reducing levels of legal migration’ as James Cleverly said today. Meanwhile Labour leader Keir Starmer has described today’s figures as ‘shockingly high’, an indication of ‘failure’ that so many workers would be migrating to Britain.

Remember they’re talking about legal migration: people who have been sponsored by businesses and universities, or who have used one of the few government schemes for refugees, to come work, study and find safety in the UK. Still, long gone is the Ronald Reagan school of thought on immigration: in politics anyway, it seems no one is gunning to defend these arrivals.

Their main issue seems to be with the headline figure: that 672,000 additional people arriving in the UK is simply too high. Something, therefore, must be done.

But what? It’s here that people start to struggle. If you want to reduce the overall figure, you have to start identifying groups within that figure that you would rather not have in the UK. Who might they be?


Given the response of the British people to the atrocities seen in places like Ukraine – opening up their homes and letting people stay – it feels unlikely the target would be 240,000 people who have come in on humanitarian visas in the past two years. Or, for that matter, the additional 161,000 people who have come through legal pathways for refugees.

Perhaps the answer, then, is to go after the net 519,000 international students who have come to the UK in the past two years. Their return to the UK post-pandemic, though, is largely hailed as a good thing, not least because of their estimated £40 billion worth to the economy. If anything, there’s a case for taking students out of the net-migration data altogether: while the ONS says some evidence shows students are starting to stay longer, around 80 per cent still tend to leave within five years of arriving.

Then there’s the surge in work visas – 335,000 in the year to September – which have helped to ease the labour market crisis, which has been a large domestic contributor to inflation. It’s hard to send this group back home when the NHS England waiting list sits at nearly 7.8 million, and the ONS is reporting the increase in work visas for non-EU migrants (up to 33 per cent, from 22 per cent last year) is ‘largely attributed to those coming on health and care visas’.

This is the trickiest bit for the migration dissenters: that Johnson’s immigration reforms did exactly what people were calling for after Brexit. They cut off low-skilled pathways to come work in the UK, pivoting instead to making sure those who came here were tax contributors, or students who would either become contributors or eventually return home.

It is no longer easy to claim that people arriving are taking more from the system than they are paying in. Students and workers aren’t simply paying into the system – they are also paying an NHS surcharge to get their visa, handing over an additional sum to the health service. All of that is before they even start contributing tax (those who might skirt around these rules are people on the shortage occupation list, which mean that the government thinks there is an immediate need for the services in the UK that cannot be provided by domestic workers).

It’s possible, in theory, to make some blunt changes to the immigration rules to see numbers come tumbling down. As Patrick O’Flynn says on Coffee House, Rishi Sunak could simply ‘tweak student and work visa requirements to ensure a significant fall from the gargantuan 606,000 net migration number bequeathed to him by Boris Johnson’. For Patrick – and many others – this illustrates just how simple it is to get that headline rate down. To me, it illustrates why the focus on the headline rate is such a mistake. Yes, we could try to quell the flow of the world’s best and brightest students being educated in the UK. We could also send some nurses home. To what end: a lower headline rate and far more gaps in Britain’s core services? Could that ever be chalked up as a win?

Perhaps the most persuasive argument against net migration has nothing to do with the migrants at all, but the 5.3 million working-age Brits who are claiming out of work benefits. What about their opportunities? Allowing businesses to bring over migrants to fill the gaps is surely hurting their chance of employment?

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This would be a far more compelling case if the data backed it up. We had an experiment when the economy reopened after the pandemic of wages surging. I reported back in July 2021 about some of the incredible offers companies were making to get potential workers through the door, paying more than ever before for what are normally lower paid jobs. Sadly, this didn’t move the dial much: the peak number of people on out of work benefits was 5.9 in February 2021, down to 5.3 million over two years later.

To this day, job vacancies remain well above their pre-pandemic levels, sitting at just over 950,000. It’s easy in the migration debate to pit migrant workers and native workers against each other, but labour market data suggests that no such battle is taking place. There are still currently more than enough jobs to go around for anyone who wants to work. The issue is not migrants or wages, but convincing those who are currently not working to decide, for their own benefit, to enter the workforce.

For some people, even breaking these numbers down won’t be enough: the issue is, and will remain, that there are simply too many migrants coming to the UK. Unlike some, I don’t impose any accusation or bad-faith assumption on them for feeling that way. But they must accept what some kind of state crackdown – like imposing a government-mandated limit on visas – would mean. It would produce a smaller economy, a poorer country, less opportunity and prosperity to go around.

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