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Experts Warn Against Promises To Drive Down Unpredictable Net Migration

Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak (alamy)

5 min read

Political pledges to significantly slash net migration are at risk of being undermined by the unpredictable factors that drives migration, such as conflict and workforce needs, according to experts responding to new figures showing immigration to the UK has reached a record high.

UK net migration – the difference between the number of immigrants and emigrants – rose to 606,000 in the year leading up to December 2022, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It is the highest number documented since records began.

While experts say it is reasonable to predict that this number will fall in the coming years, they also stress that future changes are unpredictable - meaning any promise by government to bring numbers down significantly is likely one they cannot keep. Notably, recent figures include more than 200,000 Ukrainian refugees, so while that number is not expected to be replicated immediately, it is also difficult to predict when future waves of migration might be driven by conflict. 

Workforce needs can also be volatile. Madeleine Sumption, one of the country's foremost migration experts, told PoliticsHome that net migration to the UK could remain at high levels if the "striking" recent trend of visas being granted to a growing number of foreign health and care workers continues.

The 606,000 figure announced by the ONS this morning was lower than predictions that it could have reached one million. However, larger numbers were seen as implausible and an attempt by ministers to manage public and Conservative party expectations ahead of the ONS announcement, in a bid to limit the political difficulty. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has come under growing pressure from Tory MPs on the right of the party to bring the number down, not least because they say it is at odds with the 2016 referendum promise that Brexit will enable the UK to "take back control" of its borders.  

Simon Clarke, the former business secretary, tweeted today there was "no popular mandate at all" for the current level of net migration. John Hayes, who chairs the so-called Common Sense Conservatives Group of Tory MPs, will demand a meeting with Sunak to tell the PM that he must do more to bring the number down, according to The Express.

Sunak has said net migration is too high and must come down, but has so far refused to set out a specific target or timetable for achieving it. "Numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that. And I want to bring them down," he told ITV's Good Morning Britain earlier today.

Successive Conservative governments have so far failed to reduce net migration, despite promising to do so on several occasions. In 2019 Boris Johnson dropped an ill-fated pledge by former PM David Cameron to reduce it to the tens of thousands after repeatedly failing to hit his target, or even come close to doing so. 

The government has sought to stress that today's migration statistics are unique as they have been driven by humanitarian schemes set up to welcome people coming to the UK to escape Russia's invasion of Ukraine and China's curtailing of human rights in Hong Kong. 

Experts agree these two factors played a big part in the ONS figures, and say net migration will likely fall in the coming years unless there is another major geopolitical crisis which results in the UK setting up similar humanitarian schemes. "Absent of big geopolitical shocks, we would expect these figures to come down," said Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics at King's College London and Senior Fellow at the UK In A Changing Europe think tank.

Another driving force behind the record-breaking figure was a post-pandemic surge in the number of international students coming to learn in the UK.

This number is also expected to come down in the coming years as people return to their home countries after finishing their studies. There are signs in the figures published today that this is already happening: 153,000 former students left the UK in 2022, up from 61,000 in 2021, according to the statistics.

Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, told PoliticsHome that the most "striking" element of today's migration figures was the sharp rise of visas issued to health and social care workers, and that you cannot rule out the number rising if the National Health Service continues to suffer large gaps in its workforce.

“What I find striking about these figures is just how much the number of health and care visas has increased. The UK has never recruited this number of health and care workers before, even in previous booms," she said. “It might be that it starts to ease off after an initial spike, but it’s really difficult to predict.”

The government issued just under 211,000 health and social care visas in the period ending March 2023, up from under 76,000 in the year ending March 2022, according to the figures.

Portes said that while net migration to the UK will probably fall in the next few years, we likely won't see a major decrease as long the economy is dependent on overseas workers, especially in sectors suffering chronic staff shortages like the health service. “Economic and demographic pressures mean net migration is likely to be an important factor for economic growth going forward, so we should expect it to continue at a high level," he said.

In addition to health, sectors like farming, hospitality and construction are continuing to suffer labour shortages and Sunak will be under pressure to make it easier for them to recruit staff from abroad when he reviews the Shortage Occupation List later this year. 

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