Immigration and border control signs at Edinburgh Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is illegal immigration really "getting worse"?

Contrary to Yvette Cooper, the evidence suggests that the problem is less severe than commonly thought.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, recently made a major speech on "Labour’s approach to immigration". This blog isn’t about the speech as a whole (much was fairly sensible on the benefits of migration and the damage being done by government policy in some areas, but it lacked substantive policy proposals to improve matters). Instead I want to focus on one specific paragraph, because it exemplifies the sort of alarmist, yet evidence-free, rhetoric that is increasingly common from politicians of all parties on this topic:

"At the same time illegal immigration – which isn’t included in the target – is getting worse. More people are absconding at the border, fewer are being caught and sent home, and the number of people here illegally is growing."

What does she mean by this? It appears to be true that more people are "absconding at the border" and removals are down. But so what? Only a very small proportion of those not legally present in the UK enter illegally - the vast majority are asylum seekers whose claims (and appeals) have been denied, and those overstaying their visas. Are there more of those? The fact that (slightly) fewer such people are being deported could indeed mean that there are more who aren't. But it could equally, and just as plausibly, mean exactly the opposite, if the reason is actually simply that there are fewer out there.  

So what does the evidence say? Is it correct that "illegal immigration..is getting worse..and the number of people here illegally is growing"? The last serious estimate of the number of those illegally resident in the UK was made in 2009, with data to the end of 2007; the estimate then was for a range of 420,000 to 860,000, with a central estimate of 620,000; this is the number most commonly quoted, although Migration Watch, assert the number is more likely to be about a million, by adding an arbitrary half a million overstayers and illegal entrants.

But what has happened since 2007? The 2009 report, itself based on an earlier Home Office study, found that the most important group of illegal residents was failed asylum-seekers, resulting from the period of very high flows in the early 2000s, and the resulting breakdown in the administration of the asylum system. Since then, however, while the flow of asylum seekers has remained fairly stable at much lower levels, a major regularisation programme, beginning in 2007 – amnesty in all but name for well over 100,000 applicants, especially those with children – has dealt with much of this issue. Indeed, as a result of this programme (begun by the previous government but mostly implemented by this one), in 2010 more immigrants were granted permanent residence in the UK than ever before.  

Although it is almost impossible to make sense of Home Office data on this topic, this Home Affairs Committee report suggests that of about half a million unresolved cases (in some cases, people whose claims had been denied; in many other cases, people who'd been lost in the system) more than 70 percent have been resolved (either by giving the applicants leave to remain; or because they had already left the country; or because the files were errors or duplicates). In any case, these cases no longer represent people who are here without legal residency. It is impossible to say how that affects the numbers  - but it does seem probable, therefore, that the number of failed asylum seekers is now considerably lower than in 2007.

This effect also shows up in aggregate immigration data. In the period 2001-07 inclusive, net non-EU migration to the UK was more than 1.5 million; during the same period, about 1 million people were granted settlement (indefinite leave to remain or similar). While the discrepancy is not in any sense a measure of irregular migration (there are lots of reasons why someone might immigrate here and not show up in contemporaneous settlement data) it is indicative of the overall balance between the number of people moving here and those given legal residency. By contrast, in the period 2008-12 inclusive, the two figures were not far apart, at somewhat over and just under 900,000 respectively. This does not look obviously consistent with a growing irregular population in the latter period.

Similar confirmation that there is not a large illegally resident population that has somehow been missed is provided by a comparison between the immigration data from the International Passenger Survey (IPS) and the 2011 Census. The fact that the immigration data "missed" a lot of EU migrants has attracted a lot of attention; what has been less well publicised is that the IPS-based estimates for non-EU migration turned out to be surprisingly accurate, with hardly any discrepancy with the Census. If Migration Watch was right about the extra half million  (who would not have been counted by the IPS) then where exactly are these people now?

Finally, although it is not probative, another piece of evidence suggests that the number of illegal residents may actually be rather lower than we thought. Data from the Metropolitan Police continue to show, as I first noted here, that even when immigration officers are directly involved in the processing of all those arrested in London, immigration action is taken against a remarkably small proportion: slightly under 1 per cent. More detail in my article, but unless we believe that irregular migrants are remarkably law-abiding compared both to natives and legal immigrants (who offend at approximately the same rate as natives) then it may be that levels of irregular migration are considerably lower than previously thought. Again, Migration Watch's "estimate" that the illegally resident population of London is about half a million (more than 6 percent) looks implausible in this light.

To conclude: for obvious reasons, it is very difficult to be definitive about the number of people illegally resident in the UK, let alone whether the problem is getting "worse" or "better". Given that illegal and irregular immigration is, quite rightly, a sensitive issue among both native Britons and legally resident immigrants, this alone should have given Yvette pause before making a definitive statement on the topic.

Moreover, the balance of the evidence and data that we do have suggests that, if anything, the problem is perhaps rather less severe than commonly thought. Politicians, Yvette no exception, often say that "politicians didn’t talk enough about immigration" – to the intense irritation of those of us who’ve been talking about little else for the last 15 years.  But feeling that you need to talk about something is not an excuse for getting it wrong. 

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.