Government must tread carefully on EU conspiracy theories

Failure to release national insurance data fuels claims of a migration cover-up

 

Following yesterday’s publication of migration figures for the year ending September 2015, the government is under fire for a supposed cover-up of true migration figures.

The premise for the dispute is that, while ONS estimates that gross migration to the UK from the EU was 260,000 in the year to September, during the same period 650,000 EU nationals registered for National Insurance (National Insurance) numbers.

The Sun calls it the ‘Great Migrant CON’, the Telegraph has ministers ‘hiding full scale of EU immigration’, and Nigel Farage accuses them of ‘pulling the wool over our eyes’.

All three draw on the work of Jonathan Portes, principal research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), who has suggested that the government is ‘concealing the facts’ on this issue and has submitted multiple freedom of information claims.

There are a number of perfectly innocuous explanations for the discrepancy. The NI figures undoubtedly include many people who worked in the UK short-term, while the ONS only captures those planning to stay for a year or more. It is also likely that a segment of people registered for NI numbers in the last year, despite having been resident in the UK for longer.

And, of course, even if EU immigration is higher than ONS statistics suggest, that’s not necessarily a problem, as many argue that EU migration is advantageous to the British economy. It would also demonstrate that benefit tourism is even less of an issue than the we already thought.

However, as Portes has argued, the discrepancy is significant and has increased in recent years, and accurate analysis of migration trends requires full access to the data.

 

Furthermore, ‘Remain’ supporters cannot underestimate the power of conspiracy theories in the referendum campaign, particularly in relation to migration.

Polling information published yesterday demonstrates once again that trust – and lack of trust in EU institutions – is a major issue that needs to be addressed by ‘Remain’.

Voters are not convinced by David Cameron’s assurances on his EU deal, and are susceptible to claims that the government is misrepresenting the facts. The government’s long history of misrepresenting facts doesn’t help either.

And unfortunately, the prime minister’s response to yesterday’s figures – he says he is still convinced that net migration can be brought below 100,000 – offers an open goal to ‘Leave’ campaigners who claim migration cannot be reduced to the tens of thousands while Britain remains in the EU.

The thing is, it doesn’t need to be. The net migration target is entirely arbitrary, and should be abandoned in favour of a coherent migration and integration strategy.

As many observers have noted, migration is the issue that’s most likely to lose David Cameron the referendum. That becomes more likely every time his government misrepresents facts, conceals data, and pays lip service to its nonsensical immigration target.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward

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