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Artillery Row

The great immigration data disaster

Officials are deleting the data we need for a more sensible debate

Whatever you think about migration policy, the one thing most people can agree on is that we should try to improve the data available to policymakers.

But that is not what’s happening. Quite the reverse.

HMRC used to publish data on the amount of tax paid by nationality (together with data on tax credit and child benefit claims). In fact I have used this data in previous posts.

At the start of December I emailed HMRC asking when the data for 2021 would be published. I got an email back from HMRC today, saying it won’t be: in fact it has been discontinued, and won’t be published again:

This follows on from a separate DWP decision to stop publishing data on welfare claims by nationality.

Those statistics had been published each year for a long time — they were certainly being published a decade ago. I asked why these statistics are no longer going to be available. Here is what they said:

You might also want data on people’s current nationality (which I don’t think is published either). But it is also perfectly reasonable to want data broken down by original nationality. However, officials don’t want you to have that option.

I have not succeeded in finding out which minister (if any) signed off this data deletion.

So there are two big areas, tax and welfare, where the data we need to make sensible decisions is being discontinued, not improved.

But those aren’t the only problem areas. In lots of other areas, departments have decided not to publish or use the data that is available to them. For example, in criminal justice:

  • The Home Office collects a lot of data on arrests by ethnicity, but doesn’t collect data by nationality.
  • The Home Office will not answer questions on the immigration status of prisoners, such as – were they here legally? They say: “The Home Office does not publish data on the immigration status of foreign nationals held in prisons.” (They have it, but don’t publish it).
  • If, instead of asking about prisoners, you ask about sentencing of foreign nationals then the MOJ won’t say.
  • MOJ do publish the nationality of current prisoners, but if you ask for any further analysis of that (e.g. how many of them are repeat offenders) then they won’t provide it because that would require them to link their data with data from the Home Office (which they already hold, by the way):

Big picture: big problem

Even the most basic data is missing. I got another letter back last week from Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the National Statistician. The previously published ONS data giving a breakdown of our population by nationality has been discontinued, and I had asked when it might resume.

ONS say they will provide a progress report this year, but are not able to give any date by which we will have up-to-date data on how many people of different nationalities are in the UK:

I’m not criticising ONS, but this seems to me a pretty unsatisfactory situation. It makes it hard to be confident of the stats that do exist: I have written before about how estimates of the number of people here from EU countries turned out to be 50% out, and about the gap of a million people between census and net migration data over the last 20 years.

Everything on migration data seems sluggish. On 4 December the government announced a review of the Graduate migration route. Three months on, it is yet to start. I don’t think the Home Office are to blame, but this is disappointing to say the least.


Number 10 and the Home Office should grip this and start a cross-Whitehall push to improve migration data and start joining it up. It is possible: when I was a junior health minister and Robert Jenrick was immigration minister we had a joint project that gave us a more accurate estimate of migrants’ use of the NHS (which led to the increase in the Immigration Health Surcharge announced last year). The two new immigration ministers are both excellent: No.10 should set them on a cross-Whitehall mission to fix this.

We just can’t have a sensible conversation about migration if we keep deleting the data.

This is cross-posted from Neil’s Substack.

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