Tabloid claims about “181,000 migrants overstaying” wide of mark

Bad news about immigration once again shows itself as being just about the only news the mass circulation papers want to print, writes Migrants Rights' Network director Don Flynn.

Don Flynn is the director of the Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN)

Breaking news this morning that as many as 181,000 migrants might have overstayed their leave to remain in the UK is just the stuff to alarm tabloid headline writers. Early editions of the Express, Star and Standard this morning all reported speculation that up to 181,000 migrants who should have left the UK since the much-vaunted Points Based Scheme (PBS) was introduced in 2008 could still be here.

Bad news about immigration once again shows itself as being just about the only news the mass circulation papers want to print.

This is a shame. The source for all this information is the report published this morning by the National Audit Office: ‘Immigration: the Points Based System – Work Routes’.

Charged with the task of ensuring public spending programmes produce ‘value for money’ for the taxpayer, the NAO’s study is the most comprehensive review of PBS inner workings to date, and offers up an assessment of whether subsequent governments have crafted a sophisticated system capable of ‘managing migration’.

This report is worth studying for reasons other than the cynical business of hunting down yet more negative headlines on immigration.

Although the NAO reports the Points Based System to have been broadly well-designed, it finds plenty of cause for concern thus far around its operation by the UKBA since 2008.

Expectations that the PBS could deliver the major immigration management goals set by politicians are not supported by the evidence presented here; poor data collection, inefficient programme development and faulty IT systems continue to blight the PBS.

Overall, the terribly New Labour approach of embedding the goals of a policy programme into contractual arrangements which bind state officials and private sector contractors into their delivery, seems to have ended in tears yet again; calling to mind the PFIs which were supposed to revolutionise our hospitals and public transport systems.

Within this chaotic context, guesstimates about potential overstayers in the UK are far from a statement of fact. Instead, we can expect that a substantial proportion of the migrants refused visa extensions since 2008 have left the UK already.

The truth is that officials are unable to assess a wide range of outcomes arising from immigration policy, including what happens to those refused permission to leave. This remains a real challenge for the UKBA, especially within the context of major upcoming cuts to its budget.

But there is a bigger lesson here for those who want to see the national conversation about immigration shifted onto a more sensible basis – this will never happen as long as politicians shirk their responsibility to come up with a broader, progressive perspective on migration.

There are precious few clues to be got from reviews of UKBA management performance which would help them take that quantum step forward. Whatever the value of the work of the National Audit Office in this instance we should be clear that, although it will inform the debate, it should not be allowed to lead it.

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