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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
Press releases

George Osborne tears into Theresa May over foreign students blunder

3 min read

George Osborne has launched another scathing attack on Theresa May, accusing her of using "false information" to justify a crackdown on the number of foreign students coming to the UK. 

The Prime Minister was criticised yesterday after Home Office figures showed only 4,600 non-EU students - 2.6% of the total - were overstaying their visas.

That contradicted repeated suggestions by Mrs May that as many as 100,000 were "overstayers".

Mr Osborne, who has been a prominent critic of the Prime Minister since being sacked from the Cabinet last summer, used an Evening Standard editorial to argue the Government’s policy had “damaged our economy, weakened our universities, reduced our exports and diminished our global impact”.

“Congratulations, Mrs May,” the editorial added.

The former Chancellor also claimed that when she was Home Secretary, Mrs May had misrepresented Office for National Statistics figures on the gap between how many non-EU students were arriving in the UK and how many had left.

“Alone among senior Cabinet ministers at the time, Home Secretary Theresa May insisted that overseas students had to be included in Britain’s net migration numbers,” it read.

“Her reason was simple: around 100,000 of those students, she claimed, remained in the UK illegally once their visas expired. Based on a survey conducted at airports, the figure was always considered highly suspect across Whitehall.

“But repeated attempts by the Treasury, Foreign Office and Business department to get the Home Office to investigate the accuracy of the numbers were rebuffed — the then Home Secretary thought it was better to stick with false information than get the real facts, which might force her to change the policy.”

The editorial also urged MPs to force a Commons vote on removing international students from net migration figures.

"With the facts now known, most of the Cabinet privately supporting it, and no government majority, it will surely be carried — and we can have a shot at being “global Britain”," the editorial said.

Another former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, today called on Mrs May to apologise and explain her previous policy.

“It would be better [if she apologised],” the Labour politician told Radio 5live’s Emma Barnett.

“It’s not a resignation matter. I think that Theresa May owes the House of Commons and the country an explanation about how she made this huge policy area based on completely erroneous data.

“Critically – and I’m sure this will come up in the House of Commons when it reassembles at the beginning of next month – she needs to explain what her new policy is.”

The Home Office had not previously produced public estimates for how many students overstayed their visas, but the International Passenger Survey figures published by the Office for National Statistics implied a gap between the number of arrivals and leavers of up to 100,000 per year.

That number, which the ONS now says is likely to overstate the overall net student migration, includes those students who obtain leave to remain beyond their original visa for work or further study or other reasons. 

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