1 December 2016

ONS migration statistics: time to look to the future

View all news

New immigration figures released today from the Office for National Statistics show net migration, the Government’s chosen immigration measure at 335,000, a near record level well over triple the level that the government had promised to deliver. Net migration from inside the EU at 189,000 and non-EU net migration, at 196,000, were each well over the government’s overall target on their own.

While his failure to meet the self-imposed net migration target of ‘tens of thousands’ cost former Prime Minister David Cameron not just the EU referendum but ultimately his job, following the EU referendum vote it’s now time to shift our focus away from the broken target of the past and onto the new immigration policy for the future, writes British Future Director Sunder Katwala.

It will have surprised nobody that the Government remains a country mile wide of its net migration target. The promise to hit that figure was one that could not be kept, and has contributed significantly to declining public trust in the governments’ ability to get a grip on immigration.

But we now need to move on from debating the failings of the old, broken target. The referendum vote means immigration policy is going to change. So rather than looking at the past we should now be focusing on a plan for what our immigration system looks like in the future, after Brexit – when we should expect free movement to come to an end. The big question now is what will replace it.

Immigration was a big factor in the EU referendum and people will be expecting policy to change. But it wasn’t the only factor – for Leave voters, sovereignty was their Number 1 issue; while for Remain voters it was the economy. Ask people what they think we should do about immigration after Brexit, as we did, and you’ll get a balanced view – with a preference for keep Britain open to migrants with the skills our economy needs, while acting to reduce low-skilled migration, where the public expect greater control over the scale and pace of immigration.

A system that could do both of those things could get broad public support. And if it offered preferential treatment to migrants from the EU, as suggested in our recent report ‘Britain’s immigration offer to Europe‘, then it could also represent a positive offer to put on the negotiating table as we seek the fullest possible access to EU markets.

Migration advocates who want to make a positive case for keeping the benefits of immigration for Britain should bear this in mind. Critiquing the Government’s broken net migration target may be great sport each quarter, but the game has moved on. Immigration policy is going to change and the precise shape of that remains up for grabs. they should focus their efforts on developing a constructive proposal for how we could do it better.

New permanent residence statistics for the quarter after the referendum, July to September 2016, were also released today. They show a rise in new applications from EU nationals – demonstrating the levels of anxiety that many are feeling about their rights to stay in Britain after we leave the EU. Theresa May said this week that she is ‘keen to provide certainty‘ to EU nationals who live here, and I hope that can be resolved as soon as possible.

What these new figures also show, perhaps more encouragingly, is that EU migrants who have made their lives here don’t think Britain is a xenophobic country where they’re unwelcome – it’s a country they want to which they want to commit their futures. It is important that they receive a guarantee that they can do so.

British Future’s latest activity on Twitter