Over recent months press speculation about how many Eastern European migrants are now living in the UK has run riot. Huge figures have been used to back up wild stories and tiny figures have been used to strike back.
But the fact of the matter is, right now, we just don’t have an accurate count of migrants from any country in the European Union; and recently published figures on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants are, ironically, an excellent example of our lack of hard numbers.
Last week it was reported that the number of Romanian and Bulgarian-born people working in the UK had dropped from 144,000 to 140,000 between December and March, defying general predictions of a flood of migrants from Eastern Europe.
These results are based on the Labour Force Survey, carried out by the Office of National Statistics. While these surveys are great for uncovering general working habits, they’re not so good for telling us about small groups of people, like Romanians and Bulgarians. That’s because the number of Romanians and Bulgarians who take part in these surveys is absolutely tiny.
Fewer than 200 Bulgarians and Romanians took part in the survey, meaning that the drop in 4,000 people working in the UK is based on the finding that four of those people had left the country. Just four people – that’s the evidence for the drop in the number of Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK.
As my Conservative colleague Mark Reckless pointed out: "This survey cannot possibly tell us how many Romanians and Bulgarians started working in the UK during the first quarter of this year." In fact, the ONS warned us similarly, saying that their data "should not be used as a proxy for flows of foreign migrants into the UK".
This is not to say that journalists and the media are strictly to blame. Journalists can only report on the available figures, and that’s exactly what we lack.
So what does this story tell us? Rather than reveal much about the number of migrants coming to the UK, it tells us a lot more about the sorry state of the UK’s data.
We need to calculate migratory flows more accurately (see last week's article in The Spectator). This will involve universal entry and exit checks. Only once these are in place can we know the true number of migrants entering and leaving the country.
Both sides of the immigration debate must accept there are severe shortcomings in the way we quantify migration. The Government should find a way of collecting reliable migration data and resist any measures from the EU that prevent us from doing so. If we want answers and full, accurate picture, we need to have proper border checks.