YOU could be forgiven if you missed the latest immigration figures, published on Thursday by the Office for National Statistics, covering the year to September 2019. Ironically, the airwaves were filled with news about Heathrow, but this was about the prospect of a third runway rather than the people arriving every day in the planes already landing. It was certainly a good day for glossing over, if not entirely burying, bad news. And the news was certainly bad.
The overall net migration figure of 240,000, which was reported as lower by 18,000 than the year to September 2018, tells us only part of the story. The reason for the slightly smaller number was that net emigration of British citizens stood at 73,000, the highest level since 2012.
As increasing numbers of Brits left the UK, the inflow of people from outside the EU reached its highest level on record (379,000, more than the population of a city such as Coventry), contributing to total net migration of foreigners of 314,000, the highest annual level since the referendum.
While the number of EU citizens migrating to the UK continues to outstrip those leaving, these figures do point to a changing migration profile, with 80 per cent of the non-British net inflow now from outside the EU. And yet according to research by the London School of Economics, this is the very tranche of immigration that the public are most keen to see reduced. On the other hand, it is also the element that is very likely going to continue to increase if the government’s recently announced proposals, about which my colleague Benedict Greening wrote on TCW only last week.
As I have repeatedly written on these pages, and will continue to do so if invited, more than six in ten of the public say the scale of immigration is too high. They hold this view for good reason: our roads are jam-packed, our hospitals and schools are under increasing pressure, parts of the UK are becoming more divided and the housing crisis gets worse as a new generation are priced out of owning their own place to live. With a population increasing by a million every three or four years, some 80 per cent of which is driven by migration, this is entirely understandable.
While I am at it, I should mention the 2019 visa statistics released by the Home Office alongside the net migration figures. They show how the attractiveness of the UK to those from outside the EU continues to increase, and for those of us who want to see significant reductions in immigration levels they are very worrying:
· Work visa grants (194,000) were at their highest level in over a decade;
· Study visa applications for universities (at 222,047) were at the highest level on record;
· Family-related visas were close to a whopping 200,000 – up again, over a quarter on the previous year;
· Asylum and resettlement numbers (at over 20,000) were the highest since 2003.
Boris Johnson has been in office for only five months or so of the period covered by these visa figures. Nevertheless, it is the abject failure of the Conservatives to deliver on their pledges to reduce immigration since 2010 that has brought us to where we are. Remember ‘no ifs or buts’? While some doubt the sincerity of Mr Johnson’s words about immigration on Sky News on the Sunday before the December election, and the acknowledgment that immigration is one of the ‘people’s priorities’, believe the newly-constructed Blue Wall in the North helps us keep his feet to the fire. I also believe (and I hope my trust is not misplaced) that Priti Patel really does mean to take control and ensure numbers are reduced. Indeed, perhaps this is the reason for the difficulties she appears to be experiencing as she pushes the civil servants who work for us, the people, to get with the new programme.
However, I do also have some serious concerns. Virtually every action the government have taken – for example the entirely unnecessary resuscitation of the post-study work route – over the past few months, and their policy pronouncements of recent days, will very likely push non-EU immigration levels higher. At the same time, they have failed to tackle the underfunding of the enforcement arm and to bolster border security. This is all far from reassuring.
What is a sure-fire certainty is that if the proposals announced last week reach the statute book in their current form and result in numbers spiralling out of control, as we believe is likely without much better safeguards, there will be little time before the next general election to deal with the problem. It will be a problem of the government’s own making. At that point, Prime Minister, I suggest you prepare for a colour change because as sure as eggs is eggs, blue will return to red.