EU immigration to the UK underestimated by 1.6 million

EU immigration to the UK was underestimated by more than 1.6 million between 2012-2020, it has emerged, after the ONS revised its methodology to produce new figures that dwarf previous estimates.

Previous immigration figures were based on surveys contributing to a model known as Long Term International Migration (LTIM), which now appears to have wildly missed the mark.

The new technique, called Rapid, is based on actual tax and benefits data instead, and "has the benefit of removing uncertainty", said the ONS. It reveals that in many years of the last decade the number of EU migrants was more than, or close to, double previous estimates. 

“The statistical narrative is just completely different to what we thought,” Madeleine Sumption, director, Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, told The Telegraph.

In the year ending March 2019, for example, 410,000 are now assumed to have arrived, as opposed to the 186,000 previously estimated, up a substantial 120 per cent.

The updated method of tracking immigration shows consistently higher estimates of long term EU arrivals

Over the whole period, from 2012-2020, the Rapid figures reveal the total number of EU immigrants entering the UK was up 81 per cent, or 1.64 million, on the previous total of just over two million. 

LTIM also under-counted EU nationals leaving the country, but by far less, just 804,000. This means the net total from 2012-2020 was underestimated by 839,000.

The result is that net immigration was an average of 93,000 higher than previously thought for each of those nine years. 

EU immigration: RAPID estimates a higher number of long-term departures for EU nationals than LTIM

EU immigration: RAPID estimates higher EU net migration figures than LTIM

The findings are part of a two-part analysis in The Telegraph of EU migration to the UK. The first part recounts migration trends after New Labour took office in 1997, and notes that in the 22 years from 1975, the year of the first referendum on EU membership, net migration to the UK was just 153,000.

In the following 22 years, from 1997 to 2019, it was 4.9 million, more than half the 8.5 million expansion in the UK population, from 58.3 million to 66.8 million, in that period.

The second part of the series will examine the impact of the EU settlement scheme, to which EU citizens resident in the UK before the end of last year can apply for permanent residence. The scheme is due to expire at the end of this month, and has been described as “one of the largest immigration exercises anywhere in the world”.

Analysis: The 20 years of immigration decisions that changed Britain

A deadline is looming next week, writes Harry de Quetteville. It is a bureaucratic cut-off, grey and inconspicuous. But, June 30 marks the end of one of the most dramatic demographic upheavals in this nation’s history.

By then, EU citizens living in Britain must have applied for the right to remain in the UK under the Government’s settlement scheme

It is a date that will conclude an astonishing two-decade tale of immigration to Britain. But it will also mark the beginning of a new chapter, in which a huge constituency of European residents (approaching six-million strong) commit themselves to this country despite its departure from the EU. 

Many of them may eventually become British citizens, shaping the political and social fabric of the country.

How they might do so will be the subject of the second piece in this two-part series. But now we explore the history of how, over the last quarter of a century, migration from the EU has remade Britain.

The harsh figures

It is easy to think of recent immigration as a tool of government policy, and so frame it in two phases, the first under New Labour from 1997-2010, and the second under the Conservative governments since. But that only tells part of the story, because immigration has by no means always been under government control. 

Despite official promises, policies, vows and targets, events beyond these borders played at least as big a part as anything cooked up in Whitehall.

True, from the moment he was elected, Tony Blair oversaw a rapid and deliberate expansion of net immigration, from 48,000 more arrivals than departures in 1997, to 179,000 in 2001. Foreign doctors and nurses were essential to satisfy a Labour government whose Prime Minister and Chancellor vied to outdo each other in expanding the NHS. 

At universities, the numbers of foreign students began to climb significantly too.

It was during this first New Labour term that began an unprecedented two-plus decades of sustained and significant immigration. In 1975, the year of the first referendum on EU (then EC) membership, net migration to the UK was -41,000. 

In the 22 years between then and 1997 the total number of net migrants to this country was just 153,000. In the following 22 years, from 1997 to 2019, it was 4.9 million, more than half the 8.5 million expansion in the UK population, from 58.3 million to 66.8 million, in that period.

In 2000, according to the ONS, 92.3 per cent of those living in the UK had been born in the UK; by last year that had fallen to 86.1 per cent. The UK’s population of Poles, emblems of the era, swelled 13-fold, from 56,000 to 746,000.

The number problem 

But while there is no dispute that such numbers are very large, no one can be quite sure just how large. This is because immigration has long been estimated using the IPS survey of passengers arriving and leaving the UK, which contributed to LTIM, widely accepted to be a very blunt tool. 

Many passengers, particularly from EU countries with no visa restrictions preventing them changing plans, told the IPS that they were intending only a short stay, only to end up putting down roots.

Consequently, the ONS is now using tax and benefits data, to see who is really here and for how long. Applying this method to look back over the past decade, the differences are astounding, with figures for long-term EU immigrants entering the UK now reckoned to be about 81 per cent, or 1.64 million, higher than previously thought. 

In the year ending March 2019, for example, 410,000 are now assumed to have arrived, as opposed to the 186,000 previously estimated, up 120 per cent. LTIM also under-counted EU nationals leaving the country by 804,000.

The Settlement Scheme confirms this dramatic under-counting. More than twice the number of Bulgarians and Romanians have applied to remain after June 30 as the ONS thought were in the country.

The new era of immigration

In Downing Street, the formal blessing for this entirely new attitude to immigration came in the autumn of 1998, with the creation of the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU), a breed of in-house think-tank led by the civil servant Suma, (now Sir Suma) Chakrabarti. 

Among its first reports was “Migration: An Economic and Social Analysis” by Jonathan Portes, which concluded, according to the memoir of Tony Blair’s principal private secretary Jeremy Heywood, that “in contrast to public perception… there was little evidence that British workers were harmed by [immigration].”

According to Heywood’s memoir, David Miliband immediately saw the controversial nature of the report (he called the politics “difficult”) and pressed for it to be buried. “I still think we should publish,” Blair replied. 

Former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband is now the president and chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid, relief, and development non-governmental body

Credit: David Levenson
/Getty Images

So the report was released and led, Heywood’s memoir notes, “to a shift in the government’s attitude towards migration, including informing the later decision to allow migrants from the new EU member states immediate access to the UK’s labour market.”

In consequence, in September 2000 minister Barbara Roche announced a new official policy to immigration, one that drew on the easy access to workers that globalisation offered. “Our economy is part of a global system that is becoming ever more tightly integrated,” she said. “International migration is a central feature of this global system.”

She worried not about too many people coming, but about too few, about UK labour shortages in health and IT, of “fruit being left in the fields to rot”.  

Nine years later, Andrew Neather, who wrote Roche’s speech, noted that it was a “deliberate policy of ministers from late 2000… to open up the UK to mass migration.” The aim, he noted, was not just economic. “Mass immigration,” he added, “was the way that the Government was going to make the UK truly multicultural.”

Both Heywood and Neather agreed on one thing: despite committing to mass immigration, the New Labour refused to shout about it, almost as if the public could not be trusted to accept it. The policy would be smuggled under the noses of the British people.

“The Labour government and the ones that followed it remained reluctant to communicate the benefits of immigration to the public,” notes Heywood’s memoir. “Ministers wouldn’t talk about it,” wrote Nether.

“They probably realised the conservatism of their core voters: while they might have been passionately in favour of a more diverse society, it wasn’t necessarily a debate they wanted to have in working men’s clubs in Sheffield or Sunderland.”

2004: The year that changed everything

The new national immigration policy, instituted by New Labour and enshrined by its Conservative successors, unfolded in several distinct phases. The first, until 2004, was driven by non-EU migration. In 2003, net migration from the EU was only 15,000 strong, compared to a net 224,000 for those coming from beyond the Continent.

But in 2004 the EU enlarged eastwards and everything changed. Ten new countries joined the EU, seven from the former Eastern bloc. “The turning point was 2004,” said Ms Sumption. “The government at the time had no idea that so many people would take up the opportunity to come to the UK. 

Immigrant workers – Immigration inflow

There had been attempts to predict it. Some government research indicated that actually not that many people would come from Eastern Europe, but of course that wasn’t the reality. Immigration really took off after 2004 because of enlargement.

“It was this totally new thing,” she adds, likening it to the current integration scheme for Hong Kong British Nationals Overseas, and “we just had no idea [how many would come]”. In a single year, 2004, EU net migration increased almost six-fold.

It was a shock that meant that, when the next EU expansion took place, in 2007, the government took up the option to extend a seven-year curb on workers from new members Bulgaria and Romania coming to the UK.

2007-2014: The slowdown

Immigration stalled. Not only were potential Bulgarian and Romanian migrants restricted from 2007, but at the same moment the shockwaves of the Great Financial Crash washed across the globe. Suddenly, the West wasn’t the engine of prosperity it had appeared. 

From 2007-08, EU migration to the UK halved, from 127,000 to 63,000, shedding a further 5,000 the year after. Soon, however, the UK economy kicked back into gear. This time it was migrants from southern EU nations, mired in debt and saddled with sky high youth unemployment, who saw the UK as an attractive destination. 

From 2007 to 2013, according to the ONS, the UK’s Spanish population increased by a quarter; its Greek community increased by 58 per cent. In the early 2010s, as a result, net-EU migration picked up again, and when, in 2014, all restrictions were lifted on migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria, arrivals reached record numbers.

The run-up to Brexit

By this time, of course, a Conservative-led government was in power. In 2014, for the first time, net migration surpassed 300,000, making a mockery of a promise made by David Cameron while still leader of the opposition.

Appearing on television on Jan 10, 2010, he notoriously said: “We would like to see net immigration in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. I don’t think that’s unrealistic.”

It was. For while the government could control non-EU migration to the UK, it had no power to stop arrivals from the EU, who benefitted from legally binding freedom of movement. After Cameron reached Downing St, non-EU immigration did decline rapidly, almost halving from 204,000 to 115,000 between 2011-12, but it was immediately replaced by EU migration.

In 2013, for the first time, EU migration overtook non-EU migration. The total net figure kept climbing until it reached 329,000 the year before the referendum. “We reached this high point just as the UK was going to vote,” said Sumption.

After Brexit

By that time the issue had become a political lightning rod. Each month, pollsters Ipsos Mori track what voters consider the most important issue the country faces. In 1997, immigration featured in just three per cent of answers, dwarfed by housing, the economy and, top, with 51 per cent, the NHS. 

By September 2015, three months after the general election which handed Cameron a majority, immigration had hit 56 per cent, far above second-placed NHS on 39 per cent.

It was the issue that was riveting and polarising the country. And then, as if by magic, it went away. After the Brexit vote, immigration tumbled back down the charts of what mattered to voters. Three years later, in 2019, it was mentioned in the Ipsos Mori survey by just 10 per cent.

And yet, strangely, very little has actually changed. Even as voter concern collapsed, net migration remained as high as ever. 

EU figures tailed off dramatically, falling from 216,000 to 49,000 between 2016-2019; but non-EU migration simply picked up the slack, rising from 154,000 to 282,000 in the same period. At the end of referendum year 2016, overall net migration to the UK was 252,000. 

In the year to March 2020, noted the ONS, "our best estimate of net migration, using all available data sources, is 313,000.” One explanation is control.

“Wherever you look, in the UK and elsewhere, immigration becomes a political issue when people feel it is out of control,” said Alan Manning, the economist and chair of the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). “And because of free movement the UK couldn’t control how many people were coming.” 

Brexit ended that sense of powerlessness, if not immigration itself.

The impact of Covid

Then came Covid. Last year, among the uncertainty, the danger, the travel restrictions, the desire to be with family, and perhaps above all job losses (particularly in retail and hospitality), immigration collapsed. 

Two decades after writing the report which helped convince Labour to embrace mass immigration, Jonathan Portes in January this year produced a new analysis. It shows effects as startling as anything seen in the last two decades, but in the other direction. 

The UK population, he and co-author Michael O’Connor suggested, dropped by 1.3 million in the year to autumn 2020, with numbers in London alone falling by 700,000. 

If true, they noted, the unprecedented expansion of immigration to the UK over 22 years had been ended by an unprecedented exodus. It was, Portes suggested, “the largest fall in the UK resident population since World War Two”. 

A Conservative government had finally met the target that had brought David Cameron to power, and then to his knees. But it had taken a global pandemic to do it.

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