Immigration as high from outside the EU as from within it

Credit: PA

Immigration has dominated the debate around Britain's departure from the EU for much of the last year.

I recall being at a G7 summit in Japan when a particularly high set of immigration figures were released during the referendum campaign - and David Cameron was suddenly unable to find time to do any interviews.

He is no longer prime minister of course, and his successor, Theresa May, has made immigration her key Brexit priority.

Theresa May faced criticism for rising immigration alongside David Cameron in her six years as home secretary. Credit: PA

That is what she thinks was the motivating factor for voters when they chose Leave rather than Remain.

Today's headline figures - for the first full quarter since the referendum result - do show a decline.

Net migration at 273,000 for the year to September 2016 is 49,000 lower than the previous set of figures.

In part, that decline is due to an increase in the number of EU citizens returning to what's known as the EU8 countries: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Emigration to those countries is what the boffins called today 'statistically significant'. It was up 12,000 to 39,000.

But there has been a spike in those coming to the UK from the EU2 countries: Romania and Bulgaria.

Migration from those counties was up 19,000 to 74,000, which is the highest estimate recorded.

What stands out for me, however, is not the EU numbers in isolation but the total numbers.

Thursday's figures show there are as many people coming to the UK from outside the EU as from within it.

Some 165,000 EU citizens arrived here in those 12 months compared to a similar number - 164,000 - of non-EU citizens.

The point being that the UK government can already control migration from outside the EU - and it's just as high as the numbers from inside the EU, which was one of the main reasons why people voted for Brexit.

Tony Blair issued a warning over immigration in his recent Brexit speech. Credit: PA

Last week, in his widely criticised speech, former prime minister Tony Blair suggested British voters are more concerned about immigration from Asia and India than they are about EU migrants.

Mr Blair suggested voters might feel betrayed if they don't also see a reduction in non-EU migration after Brexit.

So the task for the government is immense.

When Brexit happens in 2019, the government will be able to control all areas of migration but these figures show it's not delivering its promise to keep immigration below 100,000 even when you strip out those who came from the EU.