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Britain’s Conservatives want fewer immigrants and need more. It’s a problem

Britain’s Conservatives want fewer immigrants and need more. It’s a problem

The Tory party is tearing itself apart because it has pledged to cut immigration for the past four elections

Long stories short

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Big migrations

New figures released yesterday showed net migration to the UK last year hit a record 606,000. Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, said: “Numbers are too high. It’s as simple as that.” But he can’t put a number on what the right levels would be.

So what? More people arriving in the UK is technically good news for an economy with 1.1 million job vacancies and an additional 438,000 people not working because of long-term sickness since the pandemic. Much of the influx is due to people fleeing Ukraine, international students and much-needed workers, particularly in the care sector.

But the Conservative Party is tearing itself apart because it has pledged to cut immigration for the past four elections. Ahead of the Brexit referendum, net migration stood at around 300,000. So it’s not going well. 

Do the public care? Not so much. In Britain, the number of people who say there should be strict limits or an outright ban on immigration has more than halved from 66 per cent in 2016 to 31 per cent last year, according to one analysis of a study carried out by the Policy Institute at King’s College London. 

A separate Ipsos survey last year found 46 per cent of people thought immigration had a positive effect on Britain, up from 35 per cent in 2015.  

“Politicians often misread public opinion on immigration,” says Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute. “In the 2000s, Labour government rhetoric and policy on this issue was more relaxed than public preferences, and arguably they paid the price – but the current government is falling into the reverse trap.”

By the numbers

1.2 million – total immigration to the UK last year. Most were non-EU nationals, at 925,000.

166,000 – total arrivals from Ukraine and Hong Kong in 2022.

101,570 – health and care visas issued in the year to March 2023, a 171 per cent increase on the previous year.

361,000 – non-EU arrivals on study visas last year, up from 301,000 in 2021.

£11.40 – Lidl basic hourly wage after a pay rise this week, around £1 more per hour than the average for the care sector. 

“The government chose to add care workers to the shortage occupation list… while at the same time using international migration as a main tool for recruiting nurses and doctors,” says Rob McNeil, the deputy director of Oxford university’s Migration Observatory. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which advises ministers on policy, has called on the government to introduce better pay for care staff to make jobs more attractive for British workers.  

Suella Braverman, the home secretary, preempted the migration figures this week by blocking most international students from bringing dependents – something that will particularly affect Nigerian (60,923 dependents of student visa holders last year) and Indian (38,990) students. 

Britain relies on these students – a BBC analysis shows that they make up 22 per cent of university students but pay 42 per cent of fees. Alicia Kearns, a Conservative MP, says students shouldn’t be included in migration figures, in recognition of Britain’s educational soft power. 

Choppy waters Rishi Sunak thinks he can win this argument by targeting asylum seekers crossing the Channel on small boats (these arrivals totalled 45,000 last year, around 4 per cent of total immigration). 

But focusing on illegal migration ducks the harder questions like the demands that legal migration places on housing. The government’s target of building 300,000 homes a year – which it’s not meeting – was based on an assumption of annual net migration of 170,000. 

There is currently room in public opinion for more “balanced conversation” on migration, says Duffy. The sooner that starts, the better.

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Photograph Omar Marques/Getty Images

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