At the moment, net migration seems to be the driver behind much of the Government’s policy on immigration. The Conservative Party’s manifesto before it came into power in May 2010 was to reduce “net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands” by 2015. Most pundits do not think this is possible and that it was a foolish promise to make to the electorate. The net migration figure rose to 250,000 in the early years of the coalition. Current net migration figures released in August by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) indicated that net migration had risen to 176,000 – up from 153,000 in the year end to September 2012.
What is net migration?
Net migration is difference between the number of people coming to the UK (immigration) and the number of people leaving the UK (emigration) over a given period of time. However, despite immigration being one of the biggest topics since the coalition Government came into power, the UK still does not have an accurate system for counting people out of the country. Therefore if there is no accurate way of measuring net migration where exactly do the figures come from?
The main source is the International Passenger Survey (IPS) which was designed in the early 1960s to find out how much foreign tourists were spending in the UK. The ONS then takes the raw data from the IPS and adds information about asylum seekers and migration statistics from Northern Ireland as well as figures for people who have entered the UK on short terms visas and decided to ask to extend their stay, before arriving at the final immigration figure.
Not an exact science
As you can see, net migration is not an exact science and this has became more apparent when the Parliamentary Select Committee took apart the ONS’ data in July 2013. According to the Committee the figures “are not accurate enough to measure the effect of migration on population, particularly in local areas, and they are not detailed enough to measure the social and economic impacts of migration, or the effects of immigration policy.” For an added blow, the Committee went on to say that “these sources are not adequate enough for understanding the scale and complexity of modern migration flows.”
So how does the UK go about improving its statistics? Other countries, for example the US, opt to do one of two things, either tracking people going in and out better or counting those who are here in more detail.
The UK, in 2018 (once problems have been ironed out with IT commissioning) will be in position to undertake the latter of the two once it launches its eBorders system. This programme has been debated for many years and the Select Committee has urged the government to speed up the introduction of eBorders. eBorders once operational is expected to collect details from passenger lists of all people entering and leaving the UK and this should give the Government more accurate figures to report on when looking at net migration. For now, the UK Government will continue to refer to figures obtained from a method which is deemed unreliable. If one day the net migration figures do decrease to the “tens of thousands” based on such an inaccurate methodology, could the UK Government really claim that their immigration policies have been a success? Will it have been a case of “massaging” the figures?