Should I stay or should I go now?

Published on Jobs, Skills and Pay

Yesterday it emerged that the Home Office incorrectly sent around 100 deportation letters to EU citizens. Although the government has apologised, it would appear from today’s immigration statistics that many EU nationals are doing the Home Office’s job for them.

Net migration (immigration minus emigration) fell to 246,000 in the year to March 2017, the lowest level in three years. Looking at the change from a year ago (which helps strip out any seasonal effects) net migration was down 81,000. This was driven by a fall in immigration (down 50,000) and an increase in the number of people leaving the UK (up 31,000). Big shifts in the number of people from the EU, particularly the EU8 countries (including Poland and Czech Republic), leaving the UK were responsible. The number of EU8 nationals leaving increased to 46,000 up from 29,000 a year ago.

While the net migration figures only tell us what happened in the first nine months since the referendum, other data provides a more up-to-date picture. Statistics on National Insurance number (NINo) registrations for overseas nationals – up to June 2017 – was also released today. The graph below shows that the number of NINo registrations for people from EU8 countries fell to 28,000, down from 35,000 last June. By contrast the number of NINo registrations for other EU nationals (EU15 and EU2) have held steady.

This is starting to feed through into the labour market. Although the number of people born in the EU working in the UK has continued to rise since the referendum, this is because the number of Bulgarians and Romanians coming to the UK has risen, by contrast the number of EU15 and EU8 migrants in work has flat-lined. Firms that rely on a steady stream of workers from Eastern Europe are likely to be particularly affected. EU8 migrants account for a quarter of the food manufacturing sector’s workforce, and a tenth of the workforce in the hotels and logistics sectors.

What isn’t clear from today’s figures is whether the decline in net migration will continue. Although migration was down sharply compared to last March, the vast majority of the decline happened in the first six months since the referendum. Between June and December 2016 net migration fell from 336,000 to 249,000, whereas between December and March it appears to have held steady (although quarterly changes should be treated with caution).

The big question now is whether net migration to the UK has now reached a new plateau, below recent highs but still elevated by historical levels, or whether it will continue to fall further in the months ahead or indeed after Brexit actually happens. Crucial to answering that question is what the UK’s actual migration policy will be going forward. So far the government has had little to say in this regard, perhaps the immigration white paper (currently pencilled in for the autumn) will shed some light on this.