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  1. The Staggers
25 May 2023

Don’t believe the rhetoric – net migration isn’t on the rise

Behind the media and Labour headlines, the immigration numbers tell a different story.

By Jonathan Portes

As expected, the statistics released by the Office for National Statistics today show net migration at record levels for a calendar year. But behind that headline, the numbers don’t support the narrative – shared by many within government, the Labour Party and the media – of a system that’s spiralling out of control. Notably, the widely publicised “estimate” from the Centre for Policy Studies, despite covering a very broad range (700,000 to 1 million) was a gross exaggeration. In future, journalists should treat such speculation with considerably more scepticism.

And net migration is no longer rising. In the year to December 2022, it was down, not up, compared with the year ending September 2022, and was unchanged from the year to June 2022. Emigration has risen quite sharply and has, in the most recent data, been rising faster than immigration. And while forecasting migration is very difficult, there are several reasons why we might expect numbers to fall this year.

First, inflows from Hong Kong and Ukraine are now relatively small. Future migration on these and other special schemes will depend on both geopolitics and UK policy, but at the moment they seem unlikely to contribute much to net migration in 2023. Second, while the post-pandemic rebound and growth in international student numbers pushed up net migration in 2022, student emigration is growing. Most, though not all, leave when their studies are completed. And finally, with some signs of weakness in the UK labour market, in particular falling vacancies, work visas are unlikely to continue rising. It is particularly unlikely that the very large numbers seen in the health and social care sector will be sustained. In other words, just like Rishi Sunak’s pledge to halve inflation, his commitment to reducing net migration from current levels is likely to materialise regardless of government policy actions.

[See also: Labour is trying to outflank the Tories on immigration]

The figures show the continued impact of Brexit: there has been a complete reorientation of UK immigration flows away from the EU and towards the rest of the world, especially India, driven both by the operation of the new post-Brexit migration system, and broader demographic and economic trends. This in turn has had a major impact on the UK labour market. The rise in skilled work visas has helped to sustain employment and GDP growth, and has alleviated some of the workforce pressures on the NHS and social care sectors. However, at the same time, it has, by design, exacerbated labour shortages in sectors such as accommodation and food services, though there’s little evidence yet this has boosted wages for lower-paid workers in those sectors.

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What about policy? The government’s decision to stop most master’s students from bringing dependents might reduce net migration by up to 100,000 in 2024, but will have only a small impact over the medium to long term, because the vast majority of those arriving via this route will leave within a few years anyway. Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s proposal (likely to be implemented by the government) to stop employers paying below the “going rate” for those entering on the shortage occupation list (SOL) will only affect a very small proportion of work visas, since most occupations are not on the SOL.

Depressingly, neither party seems prepared to address the one sector in which, directly or indirectly, pay and conditions are under government control. For care workers there is no effective “going rate”, but a minimum rate just above the minimum wage. Improving wages and conditions for care workers would reduce migration pressures and exploitation. Warm words about the need for employers to develop the domestic workforce will remain hollow and hypocritical until the government puts its own house in order. 

Far from being out of control, the post-Brexit migration system is functioning as intended, to the benefit of the UK economy and public finances. Politicians and commentators should dial down the rhetoric and resist the urge to tinker further.

[See also: Politicians should treat high immigration as a success, not a failure]

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