The Story Of Net Migration – 1975-2013

European Union, Migration Trends, Office for National Statistics, Visas/Work Permits

In a major blow to one of the government’s flagship commitments, the latest data shows that net migration in the year to September 2013 reached 212,000, just 40,000 shy of the largest net flow into Britain since passenger flows have been recorded.

Net migration on the present scale is unprecedented in history. Between 1975 and 1996 net migration averaged just 7,000 per year. Last year 7,000 came in one fortnight. Even at its peak between 1975 and 1996 net migration only reached 77,000 in 1994, mostly refugees from the Balkan regions.

It is since 1997 that the rate of net migration to the UK has accelerated. This increase in net migration was not the result of globalisation as we are often told but rather a set of policy changes that made it easier to come to the UK including ending the Primary Purpose Rule which governed marriage migration and relaxing the work permit system.

In 1997, the year that Labour came to power, net migration was just 48,000. The following year it was almost three times that and increasing.

Between 1997 and 2003 non-British net migration totalled 1.3 million. Of this just 100,000 came from the EU and 1.2 million from outside the EU. Non-EU migration was roughly split between Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth migration.

In 2004 matters changed considerably. This was the year that the European Union expanded its borders into Eastern Europe and the citizens of eight new members states were given the right to live, work and study in the UK. Only the UK, Ireland and Sweden chose not to impose transitional controls (restrictions on employment rights) and this decision resulted in the largest peacetime migration of people that the UK had ever seen.

Between 2004 and 2012 the population of A8 citizens increased from 167,000 to over 1 million, the vast majority of whom came from Poland. Net migration from the A8 totalled 423,000, however the ONS have admitted that this is likely to be an underestimate and are in the process of reviewing these official figures. Net migration from the A8 was at its highest around 2007 when it peaked at 87,000 per year.

Despite the massive increase in EU migration after 2004 driven almost exclusively by A8 migration, it remained the case that between 2004 and 2012 net migration from the EU was only one third of non-British net migration (or 40% of total net migration including the movement of British citizens) and that the majority of net migration came from outside of Europe.

In 2010 the Conservative element of the coalition government pledged to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of the Parliament in 2015. The government had achieved some early success in reaching this target; in the year ending September 2012 net migration stood at 154,000, largely as a result of a significant fall in non-EU net migration, the element of immigration that the government can control. The reforms that the government had undertaken to the work, student and family routes were clearly working. 

However, this early success has been blown off course as a result of across the board in increases in net migration from Europe driving up total net migration to 212,000. Net migration from the EU15 has doubled in one year (from 30,000 to 60,000) and A8 net migration has increased from 28,000 to 48,000. Net migration from the EU now constitutes almost half (48%) of total non-British net migration.


This of course poses particular problems for the government since it now seems unlikely that they will be able to achieve their target. Young Spaniards, Poles and Italians who find work to be scarce in their own countries are moving to the UK – 200,000 national insurance numbers were issued to nationals of these three countries alone in 2013 – and this movement is currently beyond the control of the government.

7th March 2014

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