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Missing the net migration target

27 Nov 2014

The key goal of the UK government’s migration policy since 2010 has been to decrease net migration from the 'hundreds of thousands' to the 'tens of thousands' before the end of the current parliament. This is commonly known as the 'net migration target'.

Today’s net migration estimate is further confirmation that the net migration target will be missed. Net migration stands at 260,000 for the year to June 2014. This is 160,000 above the net migration target.

There is one more set of quarterly migration data to be released before the 2015 general election, but the addition of data for one more quarter is not going to change the big picture regarding net migration and the government’s target.

The UK government has pointed to the recent increase in EU net migration as the reason for missing the net migration target. But while the recent rises in EU net migration may have made it exceptionally difficult, even if these rises had not occurred the government would still have failed to hit the target – as non-EU migration was simply not decreased by enough.

Is this outcome a surprise?

Not really. 2011 government documents anticipated this outcome.

In order to understand the reason why the government is going to miss the target, it is important to examine the three components of total net migration: Non-EU net migration, EU net migration (i.e. excluding British) and British net migration.

Non-EU net migration

The only component of net migration that the government can influence through immigration policy is non-EU migration. A number of policies were introduced to attempt to bring this number down. Most were introduced in 2011.

In June 2011 the Migration Observatory published a piece of analysis called ‘Off Target‘ in which we evaluated the potential for the new migration policy changes to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 per year.

At the time of our analysis the latest provisional estimate for net migration was 242,000 for the year to September 2010. The ONS subsequently revised its preliminary estimate of net-migration for that year upward from 242,000 to 255,000.

This means that the new policies would have needed to reduce non-EU net migration by over 155,000 to hit the target (255,000 – 155,000 = 100,000).

The final estimate for non-EU migration for the year to September 2010 was 218,000. Everything else being constant, non-EU net migration needed to be cut to under 63,000 in order to achieve the net migration target (218,000 – 155,000 = 63,000).

Today’s data indicates that non-EU net migration is now estimated at 168,000, considerably above the 63,000 mark. Therefore, the reduction in non-EU migration has been insufficient to hit the net migration target.

This failure to reduce non-EU net migration enough to hit the target is consistent with the Migration Observatory’s ‘Off Target’ analysis of the new migration policies in 2011.

This analysis was based on an examination of the government’s Impact Assessments of the new policy changes that were being introduced. Each of these Impact Assessments includes an estimate of the expected reduction in net migration as a result of the policy changes.

Our 2011 findings, based on these Impact Assessments, indicated that the new policies to cut non-EU net migration were insufficient to meet its ‘tens of thousands’ net migration target. Our estimates indicated that everything else being constant, the policies would reduce net migration by about 75,000. That is, a reduction from the latest preliminary estimate at the time of 242,000 to 167,000. This meant that that target would be missed by more than 67,000 (40%).

EU net migration (excluding British nationals)

The EU’s freedom of movement directive precludes efforts to prevent EU citizens from moving to the UK to live and work. The government has highlighted the fact that non-EU net migration is now at ‘its lowest levels since the 1990s‘ – while EU net migration has increased sharply in recent years. EU net migration has increased from 81,000 in the year to September 2010 to 142,000 in the figures published today.

Is the increase in EU net migration the reason why the government has failed to hit the target?

It certainly hasn’t helped, but it is not the main reason for missing the net migration target.

One way of showing this clearly is to change EU net migration from the current level of 142,000 to a lower value. If we change EU net migration from the current value to 65,000, which is the lowest value since the 2010 general election, total net migration would still stand at 183,000. The government would still have missed the target by 83,000.

British net migration

British net migration has become more positive in recent years. That is, fewer British nationals are leaving the UK relative to those returning from other countries. This affects net migration estimates, but it is not the main reason for missing the net migration target.

If we change British net migration from the current value of -50,000 to -77,000, the ‘lowest’ or ‘most negative’ value since the 2010 general election, total net migration would still stand at 233,000. The government would still have missed the target by 133,000.

An anticipated outcome

There now seems to be broad agreement around the British political spectrum – including from the Government itself – that the UK Government will miss the net migration target.

This should not be a surprise for anyone.

Government documents in 2011 indicated that the net migration target was unlikely to be hit with the policies that were introduced at the time – even without the recent rise in EU net migration. The government policies were not expected to deliver the reduction in non-EU net migration required to achieve the tens of thousands target by 2015.

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