Immigration by numbers
Nick Clegg's use of an inaccurate statistic to attack David Cameron last night has led me to some immigration data which calls into question the rhetoric of all three big Westminster parties on the subject.
According to the most up-to-date figures published, for every eight immigrants arriving into Britain, only one is a worker from outside the EU.
And, far from taking British jobs, the official stats suggest 8,000 more non-EU workers left the UK than came to live here in 2008. However, 46,000 more EU-workers came than left.
The big three Westminster parties have tended to brush to one side the point that lots of our inward migration comes from the EU and none of their policies would do anything about that. Only UKIP and the BNP would withdraw from the European Union, a prerequisite for restricting Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians from coming to work in Britain.
In last night's debate, the LibDem leader ridiculed the Conservative plan for a cap by claiming that eight out of 10 migrants come from the EU. "Can you now tell me, am I right or wrong that 80% of people who come here come from the European Union?" he demanded.
Well, the answer is: he is wrong. The latest official figures are for 2008 and suggest it is about 48% - 258,000 EU and returning British citizens out of a total of 538,000 immigrants.
In trying to explain his error, Mr Clegg's office has since said that the 80% comes from an article in the Economist, which is hardly the kind of official source one might have hoped for but is a start.
The article says this: "Workers from outside the EU make up just one-fifth of all immigrants when students (who pay valuable tuition fees) are excluded."
So the Lib Dems are focusing on workers and excluding students. Given that the Conservative cap on immigration only applies to non-EU workers, this might seem reasonable, albeit that the way Mr Clegg expressed himself was misleading.
Let's have a look, then, at what the official stats tell us about people coming to Britain to work. The key table can be found here.
In 2008, out of the 538,000 long-term migrants who came to the UK, 207,000 said they were coming to look for work or because they had a definite job. The data is based on a survey of arrivals at ports and cannot, therefore, tell us what they really did do once in the UK, but it is the best we have got.
Of that 207,000, 41,000 were British citizens returning from overseas, 99,000 were EU citizens and 67,000 were non-EU citizens coming to work in the UK.
In other words, non-EU workers only amounted to 32% of workers coming to Britain and just 12% of all long-term immigration into the UK. Or to put it another way, the Conservative cap would only apply to one in eight immigrants.
The Tories have other policies including "new rules to tighten up the student visa system" and "an English language test for anyone coming here from outside the EU to get married" which would have an effect on total immigration figures. But I suspect few voters realise that the so-called cap on foreign migrants applies to such a relatively small proportion of the total.
Indeed, the tough controls on foreign workers that all three big Westminster parties talk about relate to only an eighth of total immigration.
And if one looks at the net immigration figures for non-EU workers, the difference between those who arrived and those who left, the situation seems even further removed from popular understanding.
These are figures which, I think, put a rather different complexion on the immigration rhetoric.
PS: Following discussions with the Office for National Statistics, the figure of -8,000 for the net outflow of non-EU workers has been revised to a more reliable total of -76,000. See my more recent post for more details.
Update 1 October: A complaint about this blog post was upheld by the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit.