Ben Riley-Smith, Telegraph, April 3, 2016
The true scale of EU immigration will be revealed just weeks before the referendum after government officials agreed to publish hidden statistics after pressure from Eurosceptics.
Never before seen figures about how many foreigners are working and claiming benefits in the UK will be published on May 26 despite civil servants previously blocking their release.
The publication could provide a dramatic late boost for the Out campaign given voters most concerned about immigration are more likely to back Britain leaving the EU.
It came as David Cameron rejected suggestions the EU referendum is distracting ministers after a series of blunders and lashed out at the media for over-exaggerating Tory splits.
The Prime Minister dismissed concerns over the government’s performance in recent weeks by saying reporters “spend too much time looking at each other’s newspapers” and “setting each others’ hair on fire” over battles between cabinet ministers.
The outburst comes as a poll of polls suggesting the EU referendum remains on a knife edge with the In campaign on 51 per and Out on 49 per cent with less than three months to go.
This week the NHS will become the new frontline as those backing Brexit claim immigration is putting “unsustainable” pressure on the service and the pro-EU side mount a defence.
For years, discrepancies between the numbers for foreigners counted into British airports–the method for official statistics–and those given National Insurance numbers has led to fears the scale of migration is far higher than believed.
In the last five years 904,000 EU nationals moved to Britain according to the Office of National Statistics yet 2.25 million NI numbers were issued–a gap of 1.3 million.
In December, civil servants at HMRC controversially refused to reveal how many of the NI numbers–which are needed to pay tax or claim benefits–were active by arguing it could undermine the Prime Minister’s EU membership renegotiation.
Amid growing outcry from Tory eurosceptics, HMRC’s chief executive Lin Homer has now agreed to pass on the statistics to ONS who will publish an analysis of the information on May 26. The data will also be made available to the public.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said the figures could boost the Out campaign and argued that keeping them hidden during the referendum would have been “scandalous”.
He said: “These figures will highlight the extent that the government is not in control of our borders and the importance of Brexit”.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister told the Commons last month that he would continue to ensure HMRC provide greater information on national insurance numbers.
“HMRC wrote to the Treasury select committee last week to confirm it will be working to provide the Office for National Statistics with additional data.”
This week immigration rule changes will see the minimum wage non-EU migrants must earn to permanently relocate to Britain increased to £35,000 a year.
In a separate development, Mr Cameron gave a heated reaction to the suggestion ministers had taken their eye off the ball due to the EU referendum.
In recent weeks the government has lost a vote on extending Sunday trading hours, been forced to backtrack on major Budget announcements and been plunged into a steel crisis.
During a briefing with journalists in Washington DC, the Prime Minister said: “This is a government with an incredibly packed domestic agenda which it’s delivering. I think you all spend too much time looking at each other’s newspapers.”
Pushed on concerns eurosceptic ministers were breaking rules of collective responsibility by criticising government policy, he said:
“The world hasn’t stopped turning, the Government hasn’t stopped operating. You all go around setting each others’ hair on fire and getting very excited about this but it’s all a lot of processology. I mean I can’t see what the issue is.”
Mr Cameron also appeared to deny an attack on politicians backing Brexit for personal ambition was aimed at the London Mayor by saying “the words Boris Johnson” did not “pass my lips”.