Mrs May’s record on immigration

The rise of migration to the UK has been one of the extraordinary stories of the last 20 or so years. A majority of Britons want migration to be lower and think (by six to one) that the Government’s policy towards it as been unsatisfactory. High migration was surely one of the main reasons why the referendum happened and why the “leave” camp won. Perhaps curiously, Mrs May, who has been Home Secretary for six years, is the odds-on favourite to be the next Prime Minister, despite having overseen a migration failure. She did not get to grips with the mismanagement of e-borders, promoted the conceptually ridiculous net immigration target, signed up to the “tens of thousands” manifesto pledge, and then missed it by a factor of around ten. Under her watch, there has been net immigration of 1.8m and gross immigration of nearly 3m despite a myriad of mini-adjustments to migration rules. Conservative party members who are concerned about migration will want to see a clear commitment from Mrs May to end free movement in Europe and introduce a new immigration system and work permits. 

Missing the target ……..

Mrs May became Home Secretary in May 2010. Since then immigration has been considerable. The figures in the table below are the normally quoted long-term migration figures from the ONS. The actual figures will be higher as there is illegal immigration, short-term migration and uncounted migration (many migrants, often overstayers on student visas, do not feel like filling in forms and being counted). The latest year’s figures are my estimates based on the first two quarters of data.

Roughly 3 million people have migrated to the UK during the last six years and just over a million have left. Net migration has been at least 1.8m. It is fashionable these days to compare such increases to British cities. The gross in-flow figure is equivalent to the population of Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester – in six years. The net increase is greater than the populations of Newcastle, Southampton, Derby, Plymouth, Nottingham and Leicester.

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The chart below comes from the ONS publication “Migration Statistics Quarterly Report: May 2016”, and shows the ups and downs of recent years.

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Two decades of high immigration ………

This scale of migration is new. For the three to four decades up to the mid 1990s the UK had no net migration but since 1998 it has been at least 100,000 a year (according to House of Commons research). The phenomenon started under the last Labour government and it has not stopped. (The chart below is from the same HoC paper, and uses the IPS data which is less reliable but does show a longer trend than other ONS sources.) The basic facts on migration are in this Migration Watch UK briefing.

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The pledge ……..

The pledge to cut migration to the “tens of thousands” a year appeared in the 2010 general election manifesto and David Cameron’s “contract with you“. It was repeated in the 2015 manifesto with three pages of detail explaining how and why the migration numbers would fall. There seems to be no other or more up to date information about migration on the Conservatives web pages. Despite the Government’s actions, the figures for 2015 (released in May) showed the highest calendar year net migration estimate (333,000) since records began.

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The pledge was incomprehensibly based on the net migration flows. A target based on a statistic that includes migration out of the UK, over which there are no policy levers, makes little sense and supporters of using net as the target are few. It could be hoped that attention will be focused on gross migration in future.

e-borders failure ……..

The vision for the e-borders work was to enhance the use of traveller information by:

  • collecting passenger information from plane, train and ferry carriers about individuals entering and leaving the UK;
  • analysing data before individuals arrive at the border, including, in some cases, preventing travel;
  • presenting the results of analysis to border officials so they can make better‑informed decisions about whether to allow entry; and
  • creating traveller records so the authorities know whether persons of interest are in the country, and their travel patterns.

The NAO produced a report last December on e-borders which showed that it was over-budget and behind schedule. It said: “The e-borders programme began in 2003, with an ambition which has remained largely unchanged in the intervening years. It was due to have been completed in 2011. Since we are now in 2015, with the Home Office still not having delivered the original vision after expenditure of £830 million, I cannot view e-borders as having delivered value for money. Some valuable capabilities have been added to our border defences during the life of this project, though their efficiency is impaired by a failure to replace old IT systems.”

Mrs May has been Home Secretary over nearly half of that time in which that near £1bn has been spent – and not delivered.

The end result  ……

As a result of the failure to get to grips with migration, we have poor visibility about what is happening. All of the failings are well known and yet the Home Office (under the Secretary of State) seems to do nothing. There was a PASC report on migration in 2013, and at its launch, Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of PASC, said:

“Most people would be utterly astonished to learn that there is no attempt to count people as they enter or leave the UK.  They are amazed when they are told that government merely estimates that there are 1/2 million immigrants coming into the UK each year. This is based on random interviews of around 800,000 people stopped and interviewed at ports and airports each year.  Only around 5,000 of those are actual migrants, many of whom may be reticent to give full and frank answers, to say the least. Some experts will say that  this report is understated. As an island nation, with professional statisticians and effective border controls, we could gain decent estimates of who exactly is coming into this country, where they come from, and why they are coming here. ……. Clearly these statistics are not fit for purpose in the longer term. There is also the problem that few people understand what ‘net migration’ is. It tells you nothing about how the nature of the UK population is changing, because the total immigration figure is partly offset by large numbers of UK nationals leaving.”

The lack of information about movement (and there are no accurate estimates of the number of people in the country, compared to those countries that have registers and more fulsome border controls) allowed fears of migration to build (often in a misguided way), weakened policy efforts to act and contributed to the growth of extreme and hostile views about migration. It is not hard to see how the failure on migration contributed to the referendum delivering a “leave” vote.

What does Mrs May think about migration?

Mrs May has talked tough on migration. In her conference speech in October 2015 she said: “When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society. It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope. And we know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether …. Britain does not need net migration in the hundreds of thousands every year. The evidence shows that while there are benefits of selective and controlled immigration, at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero. So there is no case, in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade.” The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson asked why Mrs May “lambasts her own record on immigration” as it was then (and remains) at over 300,000 a year.

Yet her speech that launched her bid to be party leader gave very mixed messages and certainly went a long way short of promising a decline in migration or a change in the system, for example, the introduction of something along the lines of the much touted Australian-style points system or work permits. She gave the impression of prioritising trade (in goods and services) over stopping free movement (at around 9 minutes in the speech). She said that there is no mandate for “a deal that accepts the free movement of people” but her phrase about the need to “gain more control of the number of people coming from Europe” leaves much to the imagination. Her failure to restrain non-EU migration is notable.


An Ipsos Mori poll from April this year, showed that more than half respondents (55%) say that they think the government should have control over who comes into Britain even if this means having to leave the EU. Satisfaction with how the government is dealing with the issue remains low (9% satisfied vs 62% dissatisfied) and virtually unchanged since last year.

A break on migration would seem to need a Prime Minister and government that is committed to:

  1. delivering lower migration
  2. ending the EU-related rights to free movement
  3. introducing a new system of border controls and regulating rights to live, work and claim benefits and access services (using a form of permits or ID) 
  4. rebooting the Home Office and other relevant government departments so that they are willing and able to deliver new policies and use the law as might be expected

It is Conservative Party members who will decide, based on her actions, whether Mrs May as PM would be able to deliver on these needs.


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