Rishi Sunak is facing a fierce backlash from his own party after record net migration figures were published today, undercutting repeated Tory promises to bring numbers down.
Data released by the Office for National Statistics showed that around 1.2 million people moved to the UK in 2022 and 557,000 emigrated last year, meaning net immigration hit 606,000. The figure is 20 per cent higher than the previous post-war record of 504,000 in the year to June last year.
Martin Vickers, the Tory MP for Cleethorpes, said voters’ “anger and frustration will grow when they consider these legal migration figures”, while Louie French, the Tory MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, said the “unsustainable levels of migration” were having a “significant impact” on housing.
Sunak admitted this morning that the numbers were “too high”, but there may have been a small sense of relief in Number 10 that they weren’t higher still. Recent estimates suggested the numbers could easily have topped 700,000 and possibly been as high as a million.
Yet the fact remains that net migration is more than double the 271,000 recorded in the year to December 2019. And despite more than a decade of pledges to drag immigration down, the numbers are still moving stubbornly in the opposite direction.
Coming out to bat for the government today was Robert Jenrick, who claimed that net migration had “flatlined”, and that the “particularly high figures” were due to “exceptional circumstances”.
While the flatlining claim is technically true – net immigration was no higher in December 2022 than it was in June 2022 – the ONS said that its estimates for long-term international migration is for it to keep growing, albeit at a slower rate.
While Sunak faces intense pressure over the migration issue, he is acutely aware of the economic case for the legal migration of skilled workers to make up for workforce shortages. Last week, the PM refused to stick to BorisJohnson’s pledge on bringing net migration below 250,000, vowing instead to bring the figure down to below the 500,000 figure he had “inherited”.
Today’s figures could well buttress the case put forward in Cabinet by Suella Braverman, the home secretary, who has taken a tougher line than Sunak on migration. She has talked about returning net migration to “the tens of thousands.”
But the question remains: who to exclude?
Most people arriving in the UK last year were non-EU nationals (925,000), followed by EU (151,000) and British (88,000).
The non-EU arrivals included 361,000 students and their families, 235,000 people coming for work-related reasons, 172,000 coming on humanitarian schemes from countries including Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan, and 76,000 people claiming asylum, according to the ONS.
There may be some low hanging fruit. Anticipating today’s sky-high figures, Sunak announced a new immigration curb yesterday, removing the right for foreign postgraduate students on non-research courses to bring family members to the UK.Last year, 135,788 visas were granted to dependants of foreign students, nearly nine times the 2019 figure.
But if safeguarding a stuttering economic recovery remains a priority, then there’s not a lot of fat to trim. Foreign students boosted the UK economy by £42bn last year, high-skilled workers are net contributors to the Treasury coffers, and social care workers prop up the NHS by making up for a severe shortage of doctors and nurses. Sending Ukrainians back to their homeland won’t be much of a vote-winner.
To spare the public yet more broken promises on immigration, ministers should start by coming clean about the trade-offs involved.
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