Amendment 80

Nationality and Borders Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 11:56 pm on 8th March 2022.

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe:

Moved by Baroness Neville-Rolfe

80: After Clause 78, insert the following new Clause—“Duty to publish immigration data(1) The Secretary of State must ensure that information is regularly published on immigration, including data on asylum and other immigration. (2) The Secretary of State must, within six months of the passing of this Act, review the International Passenger Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics and in particular review whether the data that it collects are—(a) accurate, and(b) relevant for assessing the scale and nature of immigration to the United Kingdom.(3) The Office for National Statistics must update the International Passenger Survey in the light of the review.”

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, noble Lords will know the importance that I attach to numbers. This has become even more important as the number of refugees and migrants entering the UK increases, as they arrive perfectly legitimately from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and, unless disaster can be reversed, Ukraine. My Amendment 81 would require the Secretary of State to ensure that information is regularly published on immigration, including regular data on both asylum and other immigration. I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Green, and my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts.

Many years ago, I was the Home Office adviser in the Downing Street Policy Unit, and I discovered just how difficult it was to get up-to-date figures on the movement of people. The International Passenger Survey improved things, but although revived after a Covid break, it no longer includes the key questions on passenger arrivals or departures that the ONS needs to produce accurate statistics. Adequate data matters, whatever your position on immigration. It is vital to make provision for housing, schooling, health services and transport, and to prepare for other aspects of the care and employment of migrants.

We had a good and mature debate on Friday at the Second Reading of my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts’s Private Member’s Bill on the office for demographic change. Even if the Government were discouraging, a strong case was made for more and better work by the ONS and the Home Office on immigration and asylum data to aid long-term planning. However, today, local authorities bear the immediate impact of the need to look after migrants, and are therefore also in need of immediate and up-to-date data.

As things stand, we risk chaos when there is a surge of arrivals, yet the tone of the response in Committee, certainly in respect of asylum seekers crossing the channel, was to produce less data, including

“presenting data in a way that enhances the public’s understanding of key issues and puts the data into appropriate context, as well as the need to prioritise the department’s resources.”—[Official Report, 8/2/22; col. 1552.]

The Commons Library has produced a good report, dated 2 March, on asylum statistics, which perhaps unsurprisingly showed that in 2021 we saw the highest annual figure for asylum since 2003, up two-thirds from 2020, and that work in progress was 125,000 claims —far too high a figure. That is a lot of people waiting. I also picked up from discussions with officials that it was thought desirable to delay the logging of some immigration data for up to a year, to check whether those who had arrived remained.

My noble friend the Minister is always so helpful that I hesitate to be critical. However, taking all this together, it sounds like a move to less up-to-date data, more spin and fewer facts and figures on which to base sound policy. Knowing the Secretary of State as I do, I am very disappointed and wonder whether this is fully understood by her. In any case, I call on my noble friend the Minister for more reassurance.

My second amendment, Amendment 82, follows reports in the media that the publication of a regular daily or weekly count of migrants crossing the channel to the UK was being discontinued. To my mind, this is unacceptable. My amendment therefore provides for at least weekly figures published within seven days, and not all at once in quarterly updates. Rather to our surprise, my noble friend Lord Sharpe of Epsom indicated in Committee that this was the Government’s new approach. Given the degree of concern about channel crossings and the abuse of migrants by traffickers who lure them into dangerous boats in busy shipping lanes, I deplore this reduction in transparency.

I have tried to get to the bottom of the matter with the help of our wonderful Library, which has referred me to the data in the Home Office’s statistics on irregular migration to the UK. This is monthly data going back to January 2018, and includes data up to December 2021. It was published on 24 February 2022. It contains a good deal of information, including both the number of small boats detected and the number of people in those boats by month, and the number of people in detected small boats by nationality, age group and sex. But—and here is the rub—there does not seem to be any information available on shorter periods, such as by day or by week.

In my opinion, the change in statistical publicity will take more and more of our arrivals below the radar and could provide a further incentive to the wicked traffickers. It is a step in the wrong direction that will be regretted by those trying to deal well with migrants arriving on our shores, such as local authorities, and indeed across this House as a reduction in openness.

I am sorry that we do not have Divisions in Committee any more as I might have won the day then. However, we have a lot to get through this evening, so I am looking instead to the Government for a clear statement of their intentions on providing up-to-date figures on channel crossings, and perhaps some follow-up discussions with me. I am not going to go away on these data issues. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench 12:00 am, 8th March 2022

My Lords, I support Amendment 80, which I have co-sponsored. The problem is that Covid has sent immigration statistics into a tailspin, to which the Government’s response has made matters worse. As I understand it, the Government suspended the International Passenger Survey that took place at all airports when Covid struck, mainly to protect the staff, who would normally have been interviewing people all day. That is fair enough. It was also the case that the number of international passengers fell through the floor, so it was not much of a guide to levels of immigration.

All this roughly coincided with efforts by the ONS to use existing statistical data to estimate migration flows. That effort has already run into trouble. In any case, it is by definition a year late because it relies on statistics that are looked at every 12 months.

The purpose of the amendment is in effect to call for the reinstatement of the International Passenger Survey, improved where possible, so as to have a clearer and more up-to-date indication of where we stand. I need hardly remind the Government that they promised to “take back control” of immigration. At present, they have very little idea of the present scale of immigration, and when they do find out they are likely to have an unpleasant surprise, with very little time to adjust their policy before the next election. That is their problem.

I will also speak briefly on Amendment 81, which concerns people crossing the channel. The Home Office has announced that it will publish the statistics on only a quarterly basis. I hope that is wrong and that the Minister will be able to say that it will be much more frequent than that.

There seems to have been a kind of fix between the Office for Statistics Regulation and the Home Office, whereby it was agreed that quarterly publication would ensure that the statistics were

“put into the longer term and wider immigration and asylum context and so better support the public debate and understanding”.

Well, “weasel words” does not describe it. What they are actually doing is insulting the public’s intelligence. If they go on with that policy, they are simply trying to keep the facts from the public on a matter of considerable public concern. So it is not surprising that a number of MPs have actually attacked this move, with one calling it an attempt to cover up failure while another said that it was “burying bad news”. I regret to say that that may very well be an accurate statement of the position. The Government clearly have a serious problem here, exacerbated by their previous promises, but they will have to deal with it, and deal with it honestly.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I have put my name to Amendment 80, which I am pleased to support—and I also support Amendment 81 very strongly as well. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe is a demon for data, as she has just demonstrated in the House, as a basis for good decisions and keeping the public well informed about what is going on around them while avoiding rumour and anecdote, which takes us to a bad place, particularly in areas as sensitive as immigration. Therefore, I particularly share her view, and the view of the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, that the Government’s decision to reduce transparency about the flow across the English Channel is regrettable. It is clearly an area of considerable public concern and, for better or worse, we will not solve it by not publishing the figures—that is likely to make it worse.

I shall add one thing on the international passenger survey, when we come to relaunch, refocus and redesign it. I was once questioned as part of that survey, when I was travelling through Heathrow, and I was very pleased to answer the lady, who was very good and helpful. I went on and talked to her a bit about her job, and I can offer the House three take-aways. First, under no circumstances do you cross-question; so if someone says that they are coming here to be a plumber in Cardiff, a plumber in Cardiff they are—there is no question of whether they might be something else. That is not your job; you just write that into the form. The second was that you tended to have a predominance of older people answering the form. She said that younger people would be in a hurry, pushing on, and they tended not to want to stay and answer her questions —or there were not many of them. Older people seemed to have more time and, therefore, she felt that the survey was biased towards older people. Thirdly, and finally, on the issue of the early morning or transcontinental flights, known as the red-eye flights, unsurprisingly those people coming off those flights did not want to answer a survey—they wanted to get to a shower, a bed or their office. She told me that so difficult had it been that they had started reducing the number of staff who were on the early shift, and they brought full staffing on at about 8.30 am or 9 am, when people were in a more helpful mood—perhaps that is the best way of putting it.

I leave it to the House, and to my noble friend the Minister, but with that sort of anecdotal background, this can hardly be a system that inspires confidence as to the accuracy and value of the data that it collects. If we are going to relaunch it, we need to think much more clearly about how we are going to gather data in a way that creates confidence and trust.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendment 80 and, partially, Amendment 81. On Amendment 80, it is common sense—and would be helpful to all sides of the debates on this Bill that arose in Committee and on Report—that we should know more. As the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has said, whatever our analysis or principles, we would all be helped if we had reliable data in the public square on asylum and immigration because we could then perhaps do some myth-busting.

When you talk to people outside of this House, there are a range of responses to this issue and, indeed, to our discussions here on the Bill. There is some perception that borders are open, and that there are too many people flooding into the UK for society to cope. Some people will even go so far as to say that we are full. I do not think that we are full but, as far as some are concerned, it looks as though we are being overwhelmed. They use the evidence of their own eyes, watching people crossing the English Channel weekly, sometimes daily, with a perception that nothing is being done. I know that this Bill is trying to do something about precisely that, but the perception is that all these people are coming in and nothing is being done.

I have said before that I do not believe that the people making those observations in public are motivated by xenophobia. I have a number of observations. The UK may not be full—it is not full—but if you live in one of the many towns where there is a chronic housing shortage, you are near the top of the housing list and then you get bumped, you may have a perception that it is to do with immigration because some refugees have been given housing. British citizens from all ethnicities can become frustrated and can feel as though there are indeed too many people coming to the UK. We need to have the figures to be able to refute that, or to do something about it. Also, as it happens, you need the figures to plan how we can get more housing and deal with the lack of services—because, actually, the problem is not too many people but not enough services. We need to know, and that is why the data would be helpful.

My second point is about lack of trust, a sense that those in authority are not prepared to tackle this issue; that it is too difficult. Often, that takes the form of people believing that lies are being told about the figures and the real numbers are being hidden. It is in all our interests in restoring trust that we are not hiding any figures. Also, confusion remains over different categories of people wanting to come to the UK. Even in this House, throughout this debate there has been slippage in talking about migrants, immigration, asylum seeking, refugees and so on; they are all too often conflated.

This is further confused by reality. For example, in my view, there are not enough opportunities for unskilled economic migrants to make their life here. I have to persuade my fellow citizens of that; they do not necessarily agree. Regardless, many undoubtedly present themselves as asylum seekers here because of the confusion. I know that it is not a clear picture; none the less, it would surely help to detoxify the issue if politicians were open and honest. That would mean our having much more granular information about the numbers of all types of people living in the UK and their status here.

Finally, I have reservations about Amendment 81 asking for weekly figures of the numbers entering the UK across the English Channel. My reservations are based on the image of some ghastly nightly announcement like those Covid death announcements, which were so often demoralising and not necessarily very reliable. I do worry about scaremongering, or that stats might be used as a substitute for analysis or context, but, on balance, I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant and the more information in the public realm, the better. This is not because I am particularly enthusiastic about data or into number-crunching, like some other noble Lords. No nation state can claim to have meaningful sovereignty if it does not know or check, or has no control over, the number of people living within its borders. It comes over as indifference to the worries of people who are already citizens here if it looks like we are being evasive about those numbers, or not openly telling them the truth.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I hope that I do not disappoint noble Lords, but I generally agree with all the speakers before me, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley. We agree with Amendment 80 in principle, in that there is a definite need for accurate immigration data. In particular, the public need to know what net immigration to the UK is—that is, the number coming into the UK set against those emigrating. In particular, they need to know how many of those are seeking refuge from war and persecution, such as those trying to come to the UK from Ukraine, and how many are effectively economic migrants, whether workers or students, who make a contribution to the economy as either workers or consumers. The former—genuine refugees—arguably have a stronger case for coming to the UK than those who want to further themselves or their careers. As I have said numerous times, in recent years only six in every 100 immigrants have been refugees.

The noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, whom I hope knows by now that you can speak only once on Report—I see that he is trying to get to his feet—

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thought that I would short-circuit the process. The noble Lord said that Covid had sent immigration into a tailspin. Certainly it has distorted the immigration figures and, although refugee numbers were high in 2021, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said, that is because they were much lower in the previous two years because of Covid.

The International Passenger Survey is not the vehicle by which accurate immigration figures should be counted, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, said. The IPS conducts between 700,000 and 800,000 interviews in a normal year, of which over 250,000 are used to produce estimates of overseas travel and tourism, so I do not even think that it is intended to be an accurate measure of people coming here to live, as such. As the noble Lord said, the people who conduct these surveys come up to you with an iPad and ask you a series of questions, none of which is verified, and participation is voluntary. This is hardly a basis for accurate migration figures.

Can the Minister please tell the House how the Home Office keeps track of those entering and leaving the UK, particularly those entering visa-free from the EU/EEA and the 10 other countries whose nationals can now use the e-passport gates? In particular, how do the Government keep track of how many of those leave at the end of the maximum six-month period? Can the Minister also explain why citizens of the United States, say, can enter visa-free and use the e-passport gates but UK citizens cannot do the same when entering the United States? I thought that we were taking back control of our borders.

Amendment 81, as drafted, would include those crossing the channel by ferry and by Eurostar legitimately, which is not quite what the noble Baroness was seeking to achieve.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I will briefly say that, like the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I agree with most of what many noble Lords have said. The need for accurate immigration data is absolutely fundamental to any discussion on this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, made this point: one of the things that is important is to distinguish clearly between immigration, asylum and migration. All that gets conflated into one, which is not helpful to the debate or the discussion, and it simply confuses people. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister the Government’s position on data. Irrespective of the debate that we will have about policy, if we are going to build trust, that data basis is essential not only for the public but for us to understand the policy prescriptions that we will debate between ourselves.

This is in line with Amendment 81 of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe: on trust, whatever the rights and wrongs, the decision of the Government to abandon the daily figures for migrants crossing the channel was a disaster in public relations terms, because people knew that the Government were failing on it. It was going up and up, and the Government were making prescription after prescription, in terms of policy, to try to deal with it. In the end, they brought the MoD in, in a confused way where we are still not sure how that is meant to work, and they are going to quarterly figures. What people say to me, and what I think—to be perfectly blunt, although I am not a cynic—is that the Government would not have acted as quickly as that if the numbers were going in the right direction; that is what people think. If people think you hide figures when they are bad, and publish them only when they are good or meet your policy objectives, it is no wonder there is distrust among the public about official statistics.

The amendments before us are absolutely essential. They ensure that we have data which is accurate, objective, allows us to make decent policy decisions, and is a basis for our debates. Can the Minister say something about what the Government’s policy is on data? Also, what is happening with respect to the migrants crossing the channel? What is the figure today, compared to what it was a couple of weeks ago? When can we expect the next figure? When the Government are seeking to build trust in passing the Bill—controversial in its own right—why on earth have they taken the decision, which is hard to comprehend, to produce figures on a quarterly basis? It simply looks as though they are hiding bad news.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their amendments and their participation in this debate. I note that their interest lies in ensuring that the Secretary of State publishes regular data on a range of areas on immigration. I acknowledge the importance which my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe attaches to statistics, and I acknowledge the important work which the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, has carried out over many years, which serves to inform debates not only in the public sphere but in this place.

I assure the House that the Home Office provides a wide range of immigration data on a regular basis and has done for many years. This includes information on many parts of the immigration system, including the asylum and resettlement systems, returns and detention, and other areas such as visas and citizenship. All this demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that the public have the information they need to understand migration trends, and that the approach to small boat arrivals is in line with these other statistics on the immigration system.

The Home Office reviews the statistics that it publishes as a department, in line with the Code of Practice for Statistics. Where it is clearly in the public interest to do so, it will publish new statistics and amend existing statistics to ensure they continue to provide transparency around key government policies. However, we must weigh up the need for more statistics against other considerations. This includes the practicalities and costs of producing resilient, assured data derived from operational systems, presenting that data in such a way as to enhance the public’s understanding of key issues, and putting the data into appropriate context, as well as recognising the need to prioritise the department’s resources.

Amendment 80 would require reviewing and updating the International Passenger Survey by the Office for National Statistics. I emphasise that the ONS is a statistical agency, which is independent of government, and whose work is overseen by the UK Statistics Authority. While the Home Office publishes statistics in relation to the operation of the immigration system, the ONS is responsible for the national migration and population estimates. It would be inappropriate, I submit, for politicians to interfere with or seek to direct the National Statistician in his statistical duties.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, referred to the International Passenger Survey, as did my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots. Prior to April 2020, the Office for National Statistics used this to measure migration but it is important to note that, as your Lordships have heard, it is no longer used for that. While the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, calls in effect for the reinstatement of the IPS, I have to advise the House that it was the ONS that concluded that the IPS had failed to meet changing user needs. It did not tell us what we needed to know about migrant patterns or give us enough detail to get a robust understanding of migration. I happily adopt the useful points made in this regard by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.

As acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, the IPS was paused during the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics is instead working on producing statistics that will tell us more about migrant patterns. This is a work in progress but it should better meet the needs of policymakers. It is experimental statistical work, and we do not yet know whether it will provide robust answers, but the Home Office is committed to supporting ONS statisticians in exploring every avenue. We need to ensure, as I think the House agrees, that we have a clear understanding of such issues and their implications for the data before we publish anything or we risk doing precisely what the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, said we risked: misleading the public and undermining faith in statistics, rather than enhancing the public’s understanding of such important matters.

In relation to Amendment 81, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, from the Opposition Front Bench and others have pressed us on the alteration or the presentation of small boat statistics. Following advice from the independent UK Statistics Authority on making sure statistics on small boat crossings are published in an orderly way, the Home Office published a new statistics report on irregular migration to the United Kingdom. The report, which includes statistics on those arriving across the channel in small boats, was published for the first time on 24 February, covering data up to December 2021. We will update on a quarterly basis.

The decision to publish small boats figures in a quarterly report ensures regular statistics are released in an orderly, transparent way that is accessible to everyone, meeting the principles set out in the code of practice for statistics. The approach has been particularly important in allowing us to present small boats data in the wider context of longer-term trends, other methods of irregular entry and the immigration system more widely, and hence to provide statistics on a more sound basis. Where it is clearly in the public interest to have more frequent releases of information, we will consider this, as we have done with the EU settlement scheme, on which we publish statistics monthly.

In the case of small boats, publishing frequent updates will not provide sufficient time to collate the data collected in the field by operational staff and integrate that with the information from the asylum applications. Nor will it allow us to perform the robust assurance processes we undertake for our wider published statistics. This increases the risk of incomplete or incorrect data being put into the public domain.

The motivation for these changes is not to obfuscate or conceal. It is an attempt to provide more useful statistics —not to hide figures but to provide more assured data. Given that assurance, I ask the noble Lord and the noble Baronesses to withdraw their amendment.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his comments, although I have to confess a sense of disappointment. Cutting resources and costs devoted to immigration data, whether by the ONS or the Home Office, may prove to be a false economy, and I am not convinced of the case for moving to quarterly reporting on small boats. It feels a little bit like hiding the story.

However, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their welcome support. I think we are all agreed on the need for accurate and reliable data on asylum and immigration, and on small boats and both directions of travel. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, we should respect the principle that sunlight is a powerful disinfectant. It should help to build trust but, for now, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 80.

Amendment 80 withdrawn.

Amendments 81 and 82 not moved.