Government figures today show a sharp fall in net migration – 230,000 over the year to June, compared with 336,000 in the previous 12 months. If it keeps falling at that rate for another 18 months, Theresa May will have fulfilled David Cameron’s rash promise to reduce net migration to tens of thousands – if that, indeed, is an achievement worth trumpeting.
For many it isn’t. The fall has reignited claims that the NHS, business and other employers are suffering a Brexit-induced drought of qualified staff, as EU workers desert ‘xenophobic’ Britain and are not replaced. Certainly, the bulk of the reduction in net migration – 80,000 of it – can be attributed on EU citizens, but to use the term ‘Brexodus’ rather ignores the fact that while there has been a fall in net migration still more EU citizens arrived in Britain than left. That is no exodus, merely a slowing-down in what would more accurately be described as an ‘entrodus’.
Moreover, the overall figures mask two very different trends. The fall in EU citizens coming to live in Britain is almost entirely accounted for by a drop in the number of people coming here to look for work. There has been no fall in the number of EU citizens arriving here to take up a definite job offer. If the Brexit vote has deterred EU citizens coming here, in other words, it is those who come here speculatively. Companies and public services have carried on hiring EU staff just as they did before.
This is an incredibly important point because for months the Remain lobby has been trying to tell us that the NHS has been haemorrhaging EU staff. It hasn’t. It is true, as is often quoted, that 10,000 (9,832 to be precise) EU nationals who were working in the NHS at the time of the referendum left their jobs in the 12 months following the Brexit vote; what gets said rather less is that over the same period 13,013 EU nationals arrived to take up jobs in the NHS – making for a net rise of 3,181.
As for those EU nationals who arrive in Britain on a speculative job hunt, are they really such a loss to the economy? These are the people who, if they do manage to find work, tend to be stuck in low-paid employment. They are the workers who have been blamed for undercutting wages of British workers and, by providing a seemingly bottomless supply of cheap labour, have been discouraging firms from investing in automation, contributing to sluggish productivity.
None of this, of course, means that there aren’t some EU workers who have returned home because of the Brexit vote nor that there aren’t any employers who have had problems hiring EU staff. But the overall figures suggest that the Brexit vote – without us actually leaving – has achieved exactly what the Leave campaign wanted it to – reduced unskilled migration while maintaining migration of skilled staff.