New figures show 260,000 more people came into the UK than left in the year up to June 2014, shattering David Cameron’s pledge to reduce the numbers to under 100,000. So what is the problem?
Today’s immigration statistics show net long-term migration to the UK in the year to June 2014 was around 260,000. Some 583,000 people came into the UK, while an estimated 323,000 left.
The Office for National Statistics, which compiled the figures, called the 260,000 figure “a statistically significant increase from 182,000 in the previous 12 months”.
Breaking the figure down, net migration from EU citizens was 142,000, compared to 168,000 from people outside the EU. That was counter-balanced by a net figure of 50,000 British citizens leaving the country.
Of the 583,000 immigrants, 176,000 came into the country for formal study.
In 2010, while in opposition, David Cameron said: “We would like to see net immigration in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands.”
15 months later, and by now prime minister, Mr Cameron stated: “Net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year. No ifs, no buts. That’s a promise we made to the British people.”
But last weekend, ahead of today’s ONS announcement, Home Secretary Theresa May reined back on the pledge, warning: “It is, of course, unlikely that we are going to reach the tens of thousands by the end of the parliament.”
In April 2011 the government introduced a cap on skilled labour immigration from outside the EU – although the number of applications only began to exceed monthly limits in the middle of 2014.
The coalition has also moved to reduce abuse of the student migration system. Degree students from outside the EU now have to speak English to a good standard, and student visas are limited to a maximum of three or five years.
Only postgraduates are allowed to bring dependants into the country, and there are new restrictions on migrant students’ eligibility for UK work after their course has ended.
As far as family migration is concerned, a UK citizen must now earn a minimum salary of £18,600 before he or she can sponsor a visa for a non-EU spouse. That rises to £22,400 for also sponsoring a child and an additional £2,400 for each further child.
But the British government has no power to limit movement into the country from EU citizens.
When Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, there were restrictions on the sort of jobs they could take in other EU countries. From the start of 2014, those rules were removed, and Romanians and Bulgarians were free to work in the UK.
Fears were expressed that Britain would suffer a surge of immigrants from both countries, similar to the influx of Polish citizens that followed Poland’s EU membership in 2004. In 2001 the census identified 58,000 Poles living in the UK – but 10 years later the census estimated the number at nearly 600,000.
The new ONS figures show that an estimated 32,000 people arrived in the UK from Bulgaria and Romania in the year to June 2014. The net figure, taking into account those who returned home, is around 27,000. That is not a massive increase on the 18,000 who came into the UK in the previous year, but the ONS says it is “statistically significant”.
Talking to Channel 4 News, a spokesman for Oxford University’s Migration Observatory said: “We’re not looking at apocalyptic numbers, but they’re within the range of more sensible guesses being suggested at the end of last year. Let’s wait to see what happens by the end of 2014.”
The numbers are not good news for the government. The fact that net migration into this country is now 16,000 higher than it was when the coalition government was formed four and a half years ago will offer ammunition to Labour and, in particular, to Ukip.
What is more, the latest ONS release may undermine public confidence in the immigration system. The Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said as much this morning.
“I think that it does damage public confidence in the immigration system by over-promising and under-delivering in this way,” he announced on his LBC phone-in.
It is a view endorsed by the Steve Ballinger of the British Future think tank. “The public wants accountable government,” he told Channel 4 News. “They should be able to hold the government to account for the promises they make on immigration.
“All of our research on public attitudes is that the public aren’t as hostile to immigration as people think, but that they don’t trust the politicians on the question. Another target that isn’t met, another promise that isn’t kept, is not going to help.”