What the anti-immigration lobby doesn't tell you

Immigration has been stable since 2004 and Britain is far from "full".

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Last week's farcical debate on EU membership wasn't triggered by an e-petition (it was an old fashioned paper petition) but it has encouraged every reactionary going to submit one. The latest e-petition, put forward by Migration Watch head Andrew Green, calls on the government to "to take all necessary steps" to reduce immigration and prevent the UK population reaching 70 million by 2027. As usual, he has enlisted the support of Labour MP Frank Field and Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, who have penned a joint piece for today's Sun encouraging readers to "tell the Government what they think about mass immigration".

But here are some relevant facts that all three men conveniently chose to omit. First, the recent rise in net migration - the difference between the number of people entering and leaving Britain - is almost entirely due to a fall in emigration, not a rise in immigration. As the graph below shows, annual immigration has been stable since 2004 - not a fact you'll read in most papers. In 2004, immigration stood at 589,000, last year it stood at 575,000.

With demagogic glee, Field and Soames point to "net immigration (sic) last year of nearly 240,000" as evidence that "the Government clearly needs to act urgently." Nowhere do they say that it was net migration that rose to 239,000 and that this was due to a

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Second, there is every reason to doubt that the UK population will rise as fast as expected. Green's dystopian diatribe in today's Daily Mail was prompted by an Office for National Statistics report suggesting that the population would reach 70 million by mid-2027, with two-thirds of the increase coming from new immigrants and their children. But it's important to note that these numbers should not be treated as forecasts, since they merely extrapolate current trends into the future.

Here's the ONS disclaimer in full:

The national population projections are not forecasts and do not attempt to predict the impact that future government policies, changing economic circumstances or other factors (whether in the UK oroverseas) might have on demographic behaviour. They simply provide the population levels and agestructure that would result if the underlying assumptions about future fertility, mortality and migration were to be realised.

The disclaimer is crucial because, as Philippe Legrain noted on The Staggers last year, "previous projections have proved wildly wrong". In 1965, for instance, statisticians estimated that Britain's population would reach 75 million by 2000. But, owing to a reduced birth rate, It turned out 16 million lower.

By far the most significant factor driving long-term population growth is increased life expectancy. The number of people over the age of 85 is expected to more than double from 1.4 million now to 3.5 million within 25 years. But short of imposing compulsory euthanasia, there isn't much that the neo-Malthusians can do about that.

Finally, even if, like Green, we assume that the population will reach 70 million by 2027, Britain is far from "full". To quote Legrain again: "Three-quarters of it [Britain] is agricultural land. Contrary to the belief that it is about to be concreted over, building 3 million new homes at the government's target density would take up only 0.3 per cent of the UK's land area -- and much less if houses were built on brownfield sites."

Green's fact-free crusade against immigration would be unremarkable were it not so sinister.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.