Factometer: fact
The claim
“On the last set of figures, the majority of people coming into the country were non-EU, non-British – just over 50 per cent, some 52 per cent of people coming into the country were non-EU, non-British.”
Theresa May MP, home secretary, BBC Radio 4 Today, 28 June 2010

The background
Immigration is undoubtedly a big deal to voters. Gordon Brown’s dismissal of Gillian Duffy as a “bigot” was one of the defining moments of the election campaign, and Labour leadership candidates are now queuing up to blame their electoral defeat on the party’s failure to address  immigration on the doorstep.

Before the election the Lib Dems mocked the Conservatives’ desire to set a limit on the number of people who could move to the UK from abroad. But the Tories’ plan survived the coalition tussles. The government plans to cut net migration – the number of people coming into the country, minus the number leaving – from the hundreds of thousands it reached under Labour to the tens of thousands seen under the last Conservative government.

Today the home secretary announced the first major salvo – a temporary limit on the number of skilled migrants who can enter the UK from outside the EU, to avoid a “rush” before a permanent cap is set next year.

But how much of an impact can this have when Britain is part of the EU, where workers flow freely between most countries?

The analysis
The home secretary said this morning that people from the EU made up a minority of those migrating to Britain.

The Home Office said her claim was based on the ONS’s comprehensive count of long-term migrants to the UK.

In 2008, 590,000 people moved to the UK (including 85,000 Brits returning after a spell abroad). About a third of those – 198,000 – came from elsewhere in the EU. That leaves 307,000 people from the Commonwealth and other foreign countries, which is indeed 52 per cent of the 590,000 total. So Theresa May gets the green light from the factometer – but how does the planned imigration cap look in the light of these figures?

The government is halting the number of skilled non-EU workers who come in over the next nine months under some parts of the points-based system at 24,100. That’s a 5 per cent reduction on last year – but clearly a pretty small splash in a half a million-strong annual ocean.

These figures don’t take into account the number of people leaving the country, though. The government’s “tens of thousands” target relates to net migration (in, minus out). In 2008, the net migration total stood at 163,000 (it peaked at nearly a quarter of a million in 2004).

The Office for National Statistics breaks down these figures according to the person’s main reason for migration. In 2008, studying was the biggest contributor of new bodies – a net inflow of 153,000.

So in theory, the government could reduce net migration to just 10,000, never mind tens of thousands, by cutting down drastically on the number of foreign students it let in. But given how keen cash-strapped universities are to attract high fee-paying international students, such a drastic step would seem pretty counter-productive.

The government’s temporary cap doesn’t cover foreign students – although this is something under consultation for the future.

The temporary cap also has flexible sides. It covers two aspects of the points-based system, but excludes people who come on intra-company transfer visas (i.e. people working for multinational companies). These make up around 45 per cent of the skilled workers who come in under the employer-sponsored section of the points-based system.

Theresa May said today that the government is also tackling other immigration issues, including tightening English language requirements for people coming in to get married, and is consulting on whether to include intra-company transfers in the cap.

The verdict
Theresa May got her facts right on the radio this morning: EU migrants make up less than half of those coming into the country. More recent provisional figures suggest that, if anything, the total is dropping as eastern European migrants start to leave the UK.

But the restrictions on non-EU workers announced today cover nothing like 52 per cent of the total immigration figure. The temporary cap set today covers just 25,000 or so migrants, while hundreds of thousands of people move to the UK each year.

Although this is only one part of the government’s plan to limit immigration, it remains to be seen how it will cut net migration to the tens of thousands it plans.