Services show a return to growth

The corrugated economy continues.

The third of the UK PMIs has come in today (After construction fell and manufacturing rose), and the service sector is also seeing a return to growth, with the index recording a level of 51.5 (where 50 is equal to no change).

Markit economics, which produces the index, writes:

A return to growth of the UK service sector was signalled at the start of 2013 as volumes of incoming new business increased and companies boosted capacity by adding to their payrolls.

Confidence in the future also strengthened, reaching an eight-month high, but margins continued to be squeezed as output charges rose at a considerably slower rate than input costs.

Combined with the other PMIs, the picture remains far from rosy, but at least the UK appears to be stagnating rather than actively shrinking. It fits with the view of the economy becoming corrugated — flipping from mild growth to mild contraction with the overriding trend being stagnating. The all-sectors PMI, which aggregates the information in the previous releases, ought to confirm that tomorrow.

With services the most important sector of the UK economy — for better or worse — the return to growth is a "huge sigh of relief" according to Markit's chief economist Chris Williamson:

Stronger growth would inevitably have been recorded had the country not suffered the heavy snowfall, suggesting the underlying trend is even stronger than these numbers indicate.

With services companies’ confidence also picking up, new business rising for the first time in three months and hiring growing at the fastest rate for six months, the sector looks to be on a renewed upswing which should help the economy grow again in the first quarter.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Leave will leap on the immigration rise, but Brexit would not make much difference

Non-EU migration is still well above the immigration cap, which the government is still far from reaching. 

On announcing the quarterly migration figures today, the Office for National Statistics was clear: neither the change in immigration levels, nor in emigration levels, nor in the net figure is statistically significant. That will not stop them being mined for political significance.

The ONS reports a 20,000 rise in net long-term international migration to 333,000. This is fuelled by a reduction in emigration: immigration itself is actually down very slightly (by 2,000) on the year ending in 2014, but emigration has fallen further – by 22,000.

So here is the (limited) short-term significance of that. The Leave campaign has already decided to pivot to immigration for the final month of the referendum campaign. Arguments about the NHS, about sovereignty, and about the bloated bureaucracy in Brussels have all had some utility with different constituencies. But none has as much purchase, especially amongst persuadable Labour voters in the north, as immigration. So the Leave campaign will keep talking about immigration and borders for a month, and hope that a renewed refugee crisis will for enough people turn a latent fear into a present threat.

These statistics make adopting that theme a little bit easier. While it has long been accepted by everyone except David Cameron and Theresa May that the government’s desired net immigration cap of 100,000 per year is unattainable, watch out for Brexiters using these figures as proof that it is the EU that denies the government the ability to meet it.

But there are plenty of available avenues for the Remain campaign to push back against such arguments. Firstly, they will point out that this is a net figure. Sure, freedom of movement means the British government does not have a say over EU nationals arriving here, but it is not Jean-Claude Juncker’s fault if people who live in the UK decide they quite like it here.

Moreover, the only statistically significant change the ONS identify is a 42 per cent rise in migrants coming to the UK “looking for work” – hardly signalling the benefit tourism of caricature. And though that cohort did not come with jobs, the majority (58 per cent) of the 308,000 migrants who came to Britain to work in 2015 had a definite job to go to.

The Remain campaign may also point out that the 241,000 short-term migrants to the UK in the year ending June 2014 were far outstripped by the 420,000 Brits working abroad. Brexit, and any end to freedom of movement that it entailed, could jeopardise many of those jobs for Brits.

There is another story that the Remain campaign should make use of. Yes, the immigration cap is a joke. But it has not (just) been made into a joke by the EU. Net migration from non-EU countries is at 188,000, a very slight fall from the previous year but still higher than immigration from EU countries. That alone is far above the government’s immigration cap. If the government cannot bring down non-EU migration, then the Leave argument that a post-EU Britain would be a low-immigration panacea is hardly credible. Don’t expect that to stop them making it though. 

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.