Net migration into the UK rose by 21 per cent last year to 239,000 on the back of a significant fall in people leaving the country and a net increase in migrants from eastern Europe, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Uncontrolled immigration: Asylum seekers in Calais, hoping to settle in the UK instead of the continent.
The ONS estimates released on Thursday show that while long-term immigration to the UK was 575,000 in the year to December 2010 – only up slightly from 567,000 the year before – emigration was at a six-year low of 336,000 in the 12 months to December last year.
The figures will make grim reading for Theresa May, home secretary, who is working to fulfil the coalition’s manifesto pledge of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands by the end of this parliament. Ms May has repeatedly confirmed that she will meet this target, although annual net migration levels were around 150,000 when the Conservative party first made its promise.
One of the biggest hurdles for the Home Office is that net migration figures can be inflated by several factors beyond the government’s control, such as the recent decrease in emigration or an influx of migrants from within the European Union. The ONS statistics show that net migration from A8 countries – including Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia – increased nearly eightfold to 39,000 in the year to December 2010, from 5,000 the year before.
Responding to the latest data, immigration minister Damian Green pointed out that from the quarterly perspective, net migration had in fact stabilised given that the current 239,000 figure for the fourth quarter of 2010 is a minor shift down from 242,000 the previous quarter.
“After almost two years of increasing net migration the figures stabilised in the last quarter,” Mr Green said. He added that the statistics cover a period before the government’s “radical changes” to the immigration system, which started in April this year, had kicked in.
The changes include a cap on the number of migrants entering the UK to work from outside the EU and a crackdown on bogus educational institutions in an attempt to reduce the number of foreign students coming into the country.
Matt Cavanagh, associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank, expressed doubts that the fledgling policies were working. The latest quarterly figures to June 2011 show a slight fall in entry for work, which is down 2.7 per cent, although this is offset by a rise in entry for study, which is up by 3.5 per cent.
“Politicians shouldn’t promise what they can’t deliver, particularly on immigration,” Mr Cavanagh said. “Before the election, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats said immigration was out of control; afterwards, they said they would cut it dramatically. Neither was true.”
But Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the campaign group Migration Watch UK, said the figures laid bare the “legacy” of the Labour government – although he added that the coalition would have to “face down some vested interests” in the business and education sectors if they were to reach the tens of thousands target.
The shadow Home Office minister, Shabana Mahmood, said the figures revealed the “gulf” between the government’s rhetoric on immigration and the reality in the official figures.
“The prime minister said ‘no ifs, no buts’ on immigration, but on the contrary, ‘ifs and buts’ sum up the government’s policies,” she said. “Cuts to the UK Border Agency forcing the loss of over 5,000 staff is making it harder not easier to enforce the rules we have.”