Migration into the UK: can the public count on official statistics?

by Dr Natasha McCarthy

2 Oct 2015

British Academy and Guardian Big Ideas debate at the Labour Party Conference

Continuing our series of conference season collaborations with the Guardian, the British Academy hosted a debate at the Labour Party Conference to ask how statistics could help address the migration challenge. Can we trust the statistics on migrations? What difference do the statistics make to debate and decision making? Will they sway people’s opinions?

Speaking at the lunchtime event on Monday 28 September, Professor John Curtice FBA argued that to a large extent statistics will not change people’s views on migration. If you are against the principle that people from overseas can freely access benefits and services here in the UK, what difference does the number make? 10,000 or 1,000,000 – for some people one may be too many. And even when there is not opposition to the idea itself, there are often misconceptions about the statistics that are determined by people’s age and educational background and which might not easily be swayed by more statistics – however clearly presented.

Richard Howitt MEP agreed that the statistics themselves cannot be at the centre of a political debate about immigration. Along with Keith Vaz MP, he argued that a technocratic discussion on the nature of the statistics and how they are collected is not helpful in coming to a collective decision on how the UK manages immigration. Keith Vaz explained that to change opinions on migrants today we would benefit from understanding the statistics on previous flows of migration, to learn how they have benefitted the UK in a multitude of ways. However, while these statistics can underpin that debate but they cannot be the focus of the debate themselves.

But statistics are not only important when it comes to holding high level discussion and debate on the principles and purposes behind an immigration policy. They have a real and practical impact. Professor Catherine Barnard, Professor of European Union Law at the University of Cambridge, spoke about the discrepancy between expectation and reality when the EU 8 countries joined the union in 2004. When surveying the room the highest estimate on how many people came to the UK from these countries was 300,000 – which was much higher than the expectation at the time of 30,000. But the reality was 1,000,000. Of course, many of those people have returned to their home countries. But the number coming and staying exceeded government expectations, and as those who have stayed have started families, strain is starting to show on the school system and other services in the UK.

Numbers are needed to form better projections, to support preparedness on behalf of local and national government and to make practical plans to adapt to the UK’s changing population. However, with Richard Howitt questioning the value of international passenger border surveys as a basis for migration statistics, the question of whether we can count on official statistics to make these arguments was once thrown into question.

The discussion at the debate turned of course to the human story behind these statistics. According to Catherine Barnard, 29,000 EU citizens migrated to the UK this year, compared 284,000 non-EU migrants. Many of these people are not economic migrants, and the story of refugees desperately trying to access the UK has dominated this summer’s news. But need there be a strict divergence between talking about numbers and appreciating the human story?

Keith Vaz argued that the Labour party needed an immigration policy, and it needed a policy that was based on statistics. Policy development in this area must fuse these statistics with the principles which drive people’s attitudes on migration. Richard Howitt’s point was that migration policy is centrally about people – but the right policy must still be based on robust statistics and the statistics must do work in any argument on migration. It is at the practical point of moving from debate to policymaking that the human aspect of migration and the numbers that model the movement of people come clearly together.

Migration is a complex, nuanced and subtle issue. There is no doubt that personal and party principles drive many people’s views on the issues, and numbers might not change their mindsets. But in order to respond effectively to the human story behind migration and to provide practical and long-term solutions, good data is essential – and it must be clearly presented and properly utilized in official projections for a realistic and prepared response to migration in the UK.

Natasha McCarthy is Head of Policy at the British Academy.

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