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

From time to time we'll share exclusive interview clips (including never-seen-before footage), the most incisive blog posts and the most interesting dispatches from our event organisers as they take the europe debate to the furthest, biggest, smallest, weirdest, most unusual places around europe and beyond.

Sign up to the Newsletter

Share this

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
Stay in touch Get our Newsletter


Free Word Centre
60 Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3GA


The Wake up Foundation is a registered charity no. 1152894

Donate now

Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or email.

Created with NationBuilder

X Close

Join Wake Up Europe!

Wake Up Europe is a campaign brought to you by the Wake Up Foundation. It was sparked by the themes explored in The Great European Disaster Movie by Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott.

We believe in the values that inspired the European project but that this project isn't working. Europe is sleep-walking towards disaster. We must wake up Europe so that we can save Europe from itself.

This job is too important to be left to the elites, the media, the political parties alone: ordinary people must be encouraged to discuss what Europe they want to see.

Or support us another way

Donate Host an event