The Claim

“I believe that will mean net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year, not the hundreds of thousands every year that we have seen over the last decade.”

David Cameron, 14 April 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

Politicians tend to trend carefully around the sensitive issue of immigration. But David Cameron waded right in today, to the consternation of his Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable.

So was the prime minister responding to public concern? Yes and no. Immigration remains a preoccupation for voters, but according to pollsters Ipsos Mori, fewer people say they are concerned about it than at any time since April 2002. (Worries about the economy and Libya dominate now).

Many Lib Dems conclude that Mr Cameron’s robust language on the subject has more to do with the impending local elections, and getting the core vote out, than anything else. So do the PM’s promises on immigration numbers stand up to scrutiny, or has his vision been clouded by the prospect of polling day?

The analysis

Getting immigration down to “tens of thousands” is a promise the Tories have made repeatedly since before last year’s election.

It’s a Conservative idea, rather than Coalition policy, but David Cameron showed on Thursday that he’s refusing to give up on it despite hostility from the Liberal Democrats.

Net migration rose to about 226,000 in 2009/10. If the Conservatives want to keep their promise, they’ll have to cut that by more than half.

Labour aides tell FactCheck they think it will be “very, very difficult” for the Tories to achieve a reduction of anything like that size.

They point out that, while Home Secretary Theresa May has repeatedly stated that the aim is to get net migration below 100,000 by 2015, the Prime Minister appears now to have quietly dropped any reference to a time limit.

According to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), about 226,000 more migrants entered the UK than left in the year to June 2010, giving us the figure for net migration.

That’s calculated from the International Passenger Survey, a questionnaire answered by more than a quarter of a million people who enter and leave the UK by land, air and sea. The ONS defines a migrant as someone who moves to another country for at least a year.

Mr Cameron concedes that the Government has no legal power to limit numbers of EU residents coming to Britain to work or study.

But he doesn’t think that’s a big problem, because net migration from outside the EU is by far the biggest chunk: of those 226,000, only about 27,000 come from inside the European Union (EU).

Now the ONS have pointed out that Prime Minister could be guilty of some sleight of hand here.

They say the figure they would quote for net EU migrations is 57,000. Those are people from other countries in the EU outside Britain.

But Mr Cameron has included British citizens in his figure. And because 30,000 more of them are leaving Britain for the Costa del Sol than returning to these grey shores, that brings the number down to 27,000.

The ONS diplomatically concludes that he’s not technically wrong to do that (because British citizens are also citizens of the EU).

But it’s clear that the PM wants to use the lowest possible figure to make his point, and its unlikely that when you or I talk about “immigrants from Europe”, we’re lumping in fellow Brits.

If we stick with Mr Cameron’s preferred figures, the Government has about 198,000 non-EU migrants to play with. And it’s obvious where they’re looking to make the biggest cuts.

Students are the biggest and fastest-growing category of immigrant, with numbers trebling in the past decade, as the Prime Minister pointed out.

Oxford University’s Migration Observatory says student migration needs to account for 60 per cent of all net migration to meet the Conservatives’ target.

Last year, 303,000 student visas were issued overseas for study in the UK, the PM said. Taken together, his new policies “will cut the number of student visas issued by around 80,000 a year”.

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that an 80,000 cut in visas would hit that net figure of 198,000 non-EU migrants hard – even getting Mr Cameron close to his dream of a return to the level of “tens of thousands”.

But Dr Martin Ruhs from the Migration Observatory points out that a cut in visas doesn’t equate to anything like a comparable cut in net migration.

He told FactCheck: “The number of visas issued includes all kinds of people – people who come for less than one year, and people who never show up. It will not translate into a number of actual migrants.”

Dr Ruhs has used the same methodology used by the Migration Advisory Committee (a group of independent economists who advise the Government on immigration) to calculate that an 80,000 cut in visas will reduce the actual flow of students into the UK by as little as 43,000.

But that’s just “inflow”, not net migration, as some of those students who come in will leave, contributing to the balancing figure for “outflow”.

The real number must be lower, but no one can say what it’s likely to be because of a serious flaw in the way the statistics are collected, the Migration Observatory points out.

A foreign student who arrives in the UK and is asked about the purpose of their visit might well reply: “Study.”

If they leave the country at the end of their course to get a job in another country they may well be asked why they are leaving and reply: “Work”.

But the survey isn’t detailed enough to find out that that person had been a student while they were in the UK. So there are no reliable figures for inflow and outflow of students.

All of which means that, while its safe to assume that cutting the number of visas will have some impact on net migration, it’s impossible for the Government or anyone else to quantify the exact difference the biggest plank in their immigration policy will make.

Cathy Newman’s verdict

Vince Cable’s not the only one who’s sceptical about the government’s ability to deliver on its immigration promises.

So it’s no wonder David Cameron’s commitment now appears to be open-ended.

Politically, though, although the PM’s language might have irked his Lib Dem colleagues, it can’t do him any harm. Tory supporters have begun to doubt if Mr Cameron is “one of them”.

Showing he’s found his Conservative dog-whistle on immigration might lay those concerns to rest, just in time for the local elections.

Analysis by Patrick Worrall