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We shouldn’t read too much into one quarter’s migration figures. But UK will be damaged by an abrupt fall – even David Davis understands that.

The latest migration figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show net migration fell to 273,000 last year – the lowest 12-month period since the year to June 2014. This remains a far cry from Theresa May’s “tens of thousands” commitment. But if more EU citizens start quitting the UK – perhaps because they don’t feel welcome – our economy and vital public services such as the NHS and care for the elderly will be hit.

The ONS recorded a statistically significant increase in EU citizens leaving the UK between July and September last year, with 12,000 more departures than the previous quarter. This is one factor behind the overall decrease of 49,000 in net migration – although that total figure is not itself statistically significant. And even the EU picture is mixed, with immigration from Romania and Bulgaria jumping 19,000 to its highest peak ever.

The ONS warned “it is too early to say what effect the referendum result has had on long-term international migration”.

Still, it is notable how a number of government ministers were saying they wanted to keep the door open to at least some EU migrants even before these latest figures. Speaking to reporters in Tallinn, Estonia, this week Brexit minister David Davis suggested immigration of low-skilled Eastern European workers would continue for a long time yet.

“In the hospitality sector, hotels and restaurants, in the social-care sector, working in agriculture, it will take time – it will be years and years before we get British citizens to do those jobs.” He added: “Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut: it won’t.”

This didn’t please the hardest of Brexiters. Former minister Iain Duncan Smith told The Times he was surprised at the timescale, commenting: ““My sense is that it is going to happen quicker than that.”

But Davis’ comments fit well with a government  coming to terms with the reality of abrupt restrictions on migrants. In September, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid suggested EU construction workers could still come if that’s what it took to tackle the UK’s housing crisis. Chancellor Philip Hammond had similar thoughts on financial professionals in the City.

The government will no doubt also be concerned about the potential exodus of around 12,000EU-trained doctors from the NHS, calculated via a recent British Medical Association survey. On the flipside, the Express seems reassured that Andrea Leadsom wants to replace EU agricultural workers with robots.

All this shows how immigration is a deeply complicated economic and social issue. Leave voters were often motivated by a desire to curb migration. They should be careful what they have wished for.

by Luke Lythgoe | 23.02.2017

Edited by Hugo Dixon


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