Statistics revealing the number of foreign workers in the UK are an age-old headache for the Government of the day. But with only six weeks to go until the EU referendum, today's publication of National Insurance figures showing how many people from Europe are working here could prove particularly toxic. We now know that last year 626,000 EU migrant workers registered for NI numbers. But whilst there was a small drop from the last set of stats, the Brexit campaign will be keen to capitalise on the apparent gulf between that figure and the overall net migration to the UK last year, which had been estimated at only 323,000.
In fact, there's nothing fishy about the discrepancy between the figures, which are showing two different things. And the Office for National Statistics appears almost painfully eager to downplay what the stats show. The ONS' Glen Watson says in relation to the figures:
'The number of short term migrants coming to the UK to work or study has been rising recently, but you need to consider the short term migrants leaving these shores as well to get the full picture.'
The ONS goes on to say that in the case of A8 migrants (those from countries like Poland and Hungary which joined the EU in 2004), many workers don't stick around. Indeed, the numbers indicate that between 2010 and 2013, around a third didn't stay longer than a year in Britain. But the difficulty for the remain campaign emerges when it becomes clear that we don't know how long those registering for NI numbers have actually stayed put. As the ONS itself says in relation to around a fifth of migrants from these A8 countries:
'Although their interactions suggest visits of a short-term nature, some of these people appear to have been in the country for longer than 12 months and so a proportion may be long-term migrants.'
The simple answer then is that in the case of many migrants who have obtained an NI number in Britain, it's impossible to tell how long they've stayed in the country. And when so much of the EU debate is focused around the question of control, that fact is only going to help the case for Brexit.
John Redwood has asked an urgent question in the Commons about today’s ONS figures, doing his usual best to act as a thorn in the side to the Government. The Tory backbencher said the release had been ‘slipped out’ and went on to suggest the NI numbers were closer to the truth than the official stats on their own. James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, hit back by insisting that 'today's report is a clear endorsement of the validity' of existing migration figures. But despite saying the Government was trying hard to stick to its 'tens of thousands' pledge, Liam Fox was having none of it. The Brexit campaigner said: 'There is no chance - zero - of fulfilling our promise to the British people on immigration unless there is restriction on free movement'. He went on to touch on the PM's renegotiation and, in his words, asked why the Government didn't 'attempt to get a reduction' in the levels of free movement.