The rate of EU migration has continued to fall, the latest government figures have shown, reaching its lowest rate since 2013.
While net migration from the EU is still positive, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the rate of growth had slowed to 59,000 in the 12 months ending March 2019, compared to 75,000 in the 12 months ending December 2018.
It said this was mainly down to the fall in migration for work, which is now at half the level that it was at its peak in 2016.
The figures also showed a continued net decline in the number of EU migrants from the EU8 bloc of eastern European countries, which include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The ONS data indicated the number of migrants from these countries dropped by 7,000 during the same time period.
However, there was a net increase in long-term international migration to the UK of 226,000 in the year ending March 2019, driven primarily by migrants from non-EU countries. During this period, 612,000 people moved to the UK while 385,000 people left.
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Gerwyn Davies, senior labour market adviser at the CIPD, said it was no surprise that fewer EU nationals were coming to the UK for work, but noted that the figures also showed fewer EU citizens were leaving the UK for work-related reasons despite the falling value of the pound and continuing political uncertainty.
“Some migrants might be fearful of the consequences of leaving the UK if they wish to return, especially those who haven’t been here for the five years they need to secure settled status,” Davies said, but added that the strong labour market and accelerating wage growth – particularly through the increase in the national living wage – could have acted as pull factors persuading labour in the UK.
While this was positive news for employers in the short term, Davies said the planned introduction of new migration restrictions following Brexit would affect the inflow of new labour, especially after the government announced earlier this week the possible end of free movement for EU citizens without any transition period on 31 October.
“Much will depend on the relative buoyancy of the UK economy, especially at the moment in the face of a bit of a global economic slow down. And of course the recent rhetoric from the government about free movement ending on 31 October will have alarmed not just EU citizens but employers which have been preparing for the introduction of restrictions in 2021,” said Davies.
“The urgent advice for employers is if you are currently seeking to recruit somebody from the EU, then make sure they arrive before 31 October whatever the outcome [of Brexit talks].”
Tom Hadley, director of policy and campaigns at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), echoed this and called for the government to “urgently develop a transition plan”.
Hadley said: “Brexit uncertainty, the lack of clarity on what no-deal means for EU citizens working here, coupled with a weak pound, is making the UK less attractive to EU workers. This is hugely concerning given that REC’s jobs data show that UK employers are already struggling to find candidates to fill essential vacancies.”
Separately, the ONS today announced it was downgrading its quarterly migration report as an ‘experimental statistic’, instead of a ‘national statistic’, after discovering limitations in the way the figures are collated.
The body explained it has been developing “a richer and deeper understanding of migration” and has integrated changes to its reports since September 2018. But the ONS admitted previous releases on net EU migration may have been higher and net non-EU migration lower than it estimated.
Iain Bell, deputy national statistician at the ONS, said: “We have made adjustments based on the new data sources. These are giving us the best assessment yet of migration trends. This will be reflected in the latest migration statistics quarterly estimates tomorrow.
“We have confidence in our overall assessment of migration trends, but recognise that development will be ongoing as we look to more data sources as set out in our work plan.”
Elaine McIlroy, immigration expert and partner at law firm Brodies, said the revelation called into question the reliability of earlier data at a critical time when the government was developing immigration policy following Brexit.
McIlroy said: “Now more than ever, it is critical that the government has accurate data on which to base policy. This new uncertainty is also less than ideal for employers that are engaged in workforce planning around the implications of Brexit.
But, she added: “In general terms, the information provided by ONS in its report is supported by anecdotal evidence that we are hearing from employers about a reduction in the numbers of EU nationals coming to the UK to work in specific sectors.
“That is perhaps unsurprising given the perceived uncertainties that Brexit has caused – most recently with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit being widely regarded more likely.”