Nigel Farage has recently pointed out a startling discrepancy in the immigration statistics:

Today the ONS has put out near record figures on inward migration to the UK with a net figure of 323,000 arriving in the country, of which 260,000 are from EU countries. But this masks the grant of National Insurance numbers to EU nationals which as Jonathan Portes of the NIESR points out that: ‘Official immigration stats say EU (gross) immigration to UK was 260.000. But 650,000 National Insurance number registrations over same period. That is treble the official Migration figures.’ They are pulling the wool over our eyes.

The continuing use of the International Passenger Survey as a source for official statistics on immigration is a scandal.  The IPS is based on questionnaire interviews with a sample of people entering the country.  It was originally designed to measure tourism flows; for this purpose it may still be adequate.  But the striking discrepancy between the IPS estimates and the number of new National Insurance numbers issued proves its inaccuracy as a measure of immigration numbers.

There are a number of possible reasons why the IPS may be understating the actual numbers of immigrants coming into the country.  Many of them are common sense.  People coming from countries with oppressive governments will obviously avoid being interviewed by anyone who looks official.  But how and why the errors are entering the IPS calculation doesn’t really matter: it’s a task for the statisticians to tackle. This is a situation where we shouldn’t need to rely on survey methods.  We should have the actual data at our fingertips.

What is passport control for?  One of its purposes should be record electronically and with total accuracy the nationality of all those passing through.  It should be an easy way to find out how many are coming into the country and from where.  Is this being done already, or is it not being done? If it is being done (which I suspect) then the Government has at its disposal precise figures on entry levels and these should be made public.  If it is not being done, all kinds of excuses will be made for not doing it: but the real reason will be that the IPS already provides conveniently low statistics which the Government would prefer to continue quoting.

What about the figures for the issue of new NI numbers?  They are not survey estimates; they are true as far as they go.  But obviously they do not include anyone who chooses not to register for National Insurance.  There are good reasons why registration may be unwise; and once one registers, one is hooked.  One may be entitled to benefits; but the first effect will be a need to pay NI and tax as soon as one gets a job.  People coming from countries where the government is the enemy do not advertise their presence to governments.

There is plenty of work available in the black economy which requires no NI registration and is paid in cash without deductions.  For whatever reason, there is a chronic shortage of small-scale building workers in Britain.  Many people are delighted to find a plumber or a carpenter when they need one and happy to pay him cash.  Small businesses of all kinds, particularly in foodservice, prefer to operate on a cash basis or partly cash basis if they can get away with it.  One day, this problem may be tackled.  In the mean time, we must accept that one of its side effects is to distort the available immigration statistics.  And of course there are also dependents who will not need to register for NI.

We simply do not know how many people from which countries are coming into Britain.  We are not meant to know.  The Government may or may not know, but if they don’t know, they could easily find out.  The Government may also know, from some other unrevealed source, how many of those who come in are staying here.  If they have this information, it should be publicised.  If they don’t know, they should find statistically reliable ways of finding out; and we should all be informed of the conclusions reached.

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