ONS data shows huge fall in West Midlands’ foreign-born population during pandemic – but is it right?

22nd January 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic led many UK migrants to return to their countries of birth, and some do not plan to return.

Photo Credit: Grabowski Foto / Shutterstock.com

By Andrew Hillman

Last week I received a news alert that caught my attention: the Financial Times was reporting that up to 1.3 million foreign-born UK residents had left the country in just 12 months, leading to “what is likely to be the largest fall in Britain’s population since the second world war.”

The story was based on a blog post by the Economic Statistic Centre of Excellence (ESCoE), a government-funded research institute. The ESCoE had noticed that between July and September, despite a global pandemic that has shutdown large sections of the economy, there were 300,000 more UK-born residents in employment than 12 months previously, according to the Labour Force Survey (LFS), the most extensive government survey of employment.

The blog post’s authors, Michael O’Connor, a research associate at ESCoE, and Jonathan Portes, a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College London, argued that this increase in employment was implausible, and the data was instead a result of the LFS’s methodology: when the survey received fewer responses from people born outside the UK, it boosted the weighting given to UK-born residents to reach an assumed population level. In other words, the LFS data did not show an increase in employment for UK-born residents; it showed a dramatic fall in residents who were born abroad.

This argument has a dramatic implication for London’s population: analysis of the LFS by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates the capital’s population rose by 80,000 from Q3 2019 to Q3 2020, but O’Connor and Portes’s method, which aims to adjust for the survey’s weighting issue, instead shows a population decrease of 700,000. But something else caught my attention. It did not matter if you used the ONS analysis or O’Connor and Portes’s method, the data suggests that the West Midlands’ foreign-born population fell dramatically over that 12-month period – a 27% fall based on ONS estimates or a 31% fall according to the ESCoE.

Could this be right? Would we not notice if so many foreign-born residents – who made up one in seven West Midlanders in 2019 (the LFS data suggests that has now fallen to around one in ten) – had left the country?

Covid-19 has “exacerbated” lack of knowledge about immigration data

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said the LFS data may be overestimating the fall in the foreign-born population due to methodological changes caused by the pandemic.

“There probably has been a fair amount of emigration from the UK, but some of this statistical change probably results from the fact that migrants became less likely to respond to the survey.”

Sumption said that once the pandemic hit, the ONS stopped knocking on doors and instead surveyed people by sending letters asking people to get in touch by phone.

“The response rates for everyone went down. If migrants were particularly deterred by the need to pick up the phone and call in, then part of what we’re seeing is not necessarily immigration but migrants not participating.”

Sumption said that other measures of migration have also been affected in the past year.

“We used to have inflow and outflow data but that survey was stopped because of the pandemic. We used to have national insurance registration data but as an EU citizen it hasn’t been possible to get a national insurance number since the beginning of the crisis.”

In their blog post, O’Connor and Portes agreed that data limitations made it impossible to know what the true figures are. They wrote that, “our lack of knowledge about what is happening to immigration…was already a serious issue before the pandemic” but had been “exacerbated over the last year.”

“I know many people who came back and they are not going back to England”

Sumption said that data limitations also made it difficult to precisely quantify the impact of the pandemic on migrants, but that there is evidence that migrants have been hit harder in terms of unemployment.

“We know that migrants are concentrated in some of the sectors that were worse hit by the pandemic like retail and hospitality and migrants in general tend to be in more precarious contractual situations,” Sumption said.

When the pandemic hit, Hanna, from Poland, was working on a warehouse assembly line in Birmingham while looking for a permanent job in special education. “Everyone around us was furloughed but I worked through an agency and the agency didn’t offer to furlough.”

While Hanna initially chose to stay in the UK and apply for Universal Credit, she said that the stress and uncertainty convinced a lot of Poles to return home once the pandemic began.

“I saw so many of my friends coming back to Poland because nobody knew what was going to happen or how we were going to survive.”

Hanna was living in the UK when the country voted to leave the European Union in 2016 and said that the atmosphere from that period stayed with her.

“I felt bad claiming Universal Credit because of the things I heard back then about people coming to England just to claim benefits. It’s like – that wasn’t my plan, I came there to work.”

Universal Credit was not enough to cover Hanna’s rent and cost of living and so she ultimately decided to move back to Poland. She had planned to stay in the UK for at least a few more years and acquire settled status, but now that she has found a job in special education back home, she plans to remain in Poland following the pandemic.

“If not for the job I have now I would still consider coming back because I really enjoy being in Birmingham. But I also know many people who came back and they are not going back to England.”

Concerns that Brexit will lead to “alarming” labour shortages

The UK’s EU-born population was falling even before the pandemic. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of residents born in EU8 countries (a group of Eastern European nations including Poland and Hungary), which had increased every year for over a decade, fell by 140,000.

There is now concern that following the UK’s departure from the European Union, many EU workers who left the country during the pandemic will be ineligible to return, leading to staffing shortages in key sectors.

Under new immigration rules, EU nationals (with the exception of those from Ireland) seeking to work in the UK must follow the same process as those coming from further overseas. In most cases this means applying for a Skilled Worker Visa, which are awarded to workers who have secured job offers in eligible occupations with an agreed salary over a threshold – typically £25,600 but depending on the profession.

There are already over 100,000 vacancies in the UK’s social care sector and since social care work is classified as low-skilled, its workforce is likely to shrink further due to the new visa requirements. 78% of EU-born individuals currently working in the social care sector would have been ineligible for the Skilled Worker Visa according to analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank.

In January, Kate Ling, the senior European policy manager at NHS Confederation – a membership body for NHS organisations – told the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union that without “significant additional recruitment and retention” of social care workers, the sector would be facing an “alarming” situation.

“There is severe concern about the impact of the new system and the knock-on pressures on the NHS,” Ling said, adding that she urged the Government to come forward with flexible and pragmatic solutions to the problems caused by ending freedom of movement on the social care sector.

The end of freedom of movement could also hamper the construction industry. In 2017, 18% of construction workers were from EU countries, including half of London’s workforce, according to an industry census by the Home Builders Federation. A separate survey by the Construction Products Association (CPA) estimates that the industry’s EU-born workers fell 28% between Q3 2019 and Q3 2020 – far more than the 7% sector-wide decrease in employment.

CPA economist Amandeep Bahra told Construction News that the exodus of workers could restrict the industry’s growth as the UK economy recovers. “With construction activity due to recover from Q2 amid the rollout of coronavirus vaccines and the easing of lockdown restrictions, the industry’s long-standing problem of skill shortages is likely to get worse.”

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