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Tory MPs Are Back In A Bad Mood Over High Net Migration Figures

(Alamy)

6 min read

A number of Conservative MPs have criticised the Government after net migration figures hit 672,000 in the 12 months ending June 2023, souring the briefly jubilant mood in the party sparked by tax cuts in Jeremy Hunt's Autumn statement.

The number of people who came to Britain over the last year was 1.18million compared to those who left which totalled 508,000. 

UK net migration – the difference between the number of immigrants and emigrants – was also revised up from 606,000 in 2022 to 745,000, the largest on record, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The numbers were increased after the ONS found “unexpected patterns” in new migrants coming to Britain.

The net migration figures will put further pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after the Tory Party promised in its 2019 manifesto to reduce immigration.

A former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome they found the figures “shocking”. One Conservative MP believed the numbers were “unsustainable” and would place “intolerable pressure on housing, transportation and public services”. Another Tory MP sent a picture of a burning bin flowing down a flooded high street after they were asked what they made of the net migration figures.

Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge and co-chair of the New Conservatives – a parliamentary group of MPs on the Right of the Party – told PoliticsHome the government could not claim it is difficult to “control legal migration” now that the UK has left the European Union, and insisted that ministers must do more to reduce migration before the next general election, which must be called before the end of 2024.

“It is fully within our control and therefore government policy is 100 per cent responsible for this number,” she said.

“This is [government's] last chance to act now. Because otherwise we cannot go into the next election saying that we've fulfilled that promise.”

Cates felt that current rules on legal migration were not restrictive enough. “People aren't exploiting the system, they're coming in under our rules," she added. "You can't blame them for that. The problem is the rules, not the people.”

Net migration over the last year was largely driven by non-EU migrants coming to the UK to study, according to the ONS. Data suggests 80 per cent of students leave after five years of living and studying in Britain. The increase in non-EU migration was also largely driven by migrants being granted health visas. In the 12 months ending in June 2023, 9 per cent of non-EU migrants included refugees from places such as Hong Kong and Ukraine.

The ONS found the largest contributors to net migration were non-EU international students and their family, who account for 378,000 people, and non-EU workers and their family, which totalled 322,000.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said the Government was "completely committed" to reducing levels of immigration to the UK, but noted that the biggest drivers to the UK were students and healthcare workers, and were a testament to Britain's immigration system at getting the skills the country needs. He added that Government would "reduce our overall numbers by eliminating the abuse and exploitation of our visa system by both companies and individuals".

James Sunderland, Conservative MP for Bracknell, told PoliticsHome he believed high net migration was adding pressure to public services and that it "needs to come down".

"Yes, we have employment opportunities that we need to fill and it's great that we are doing so, but we also need to leverage more from our existent workforce," he added.

As a group, the New Conservatives criticised the government in a statement posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, which described the issue as “do or die” for the Tories.

“Each of us made a promise to the electorate. We don’t believe that such promises can be ignored,” MPs wrote. 

“The Prime Minister, Chancellor and new Home Secretary must show they stand by the promises on which we were elected to Parliament. We must act now.”

One Tory MP told PoliticsHome the “blueprint” for some of the actions the government should be taking is contained in the New Conservatives’ migration plan which was published in the summer. 

They added that the high number of health and social care visas was an “indictment” of the Conservatives’ failure to reform the sector to promote a “home-based workforce who are able to carry out these jobs”. However, they added that they had “complete” faith that whatever Robert Jenrick, the Immigration Minister, puts forward in response will be “very robust”.

Many Tory MPs are concerned of the electoral impact net migration numbers could have, with the party already trailing an average of 20 points behind Labour. 

Conservative Peer Lord Hayward, a polling expert, agreed that while immigration is an issue which is normally fourth in all opinion polls overall, it is usually more important to Tory voters.

“It's the reason the Rwanda policy matters so much to the Tories. Economics is the number one issue in virtually every opinion poll. To all intents and purposes, tax cuts are more important than immigration rates,” he said. 

"But there's no question immigration is an issue to voters. I'd say it has been consistently one of the core issues for conservative voters over the last few years.”

Former cabinet minister Robert Buckland urged caution among restless fellow Tory MPs, and felt that a nuanced picture of migration to the UK was contributing to unnecessary division within the party.

“We rightly took in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine and Hong Kong, you have these refugee schemes and students included in the figures,” he told PoliticsHome.

“If you start disaggregating the figures, what you are left with is going to be considerably less than the headline… It doesn’t tell us what is going on in the underlying economy.”

Buckland argued that while he cared deeply about the “economic inactivity agenda”, the government needed to be clearer on how it was going to address the short supply of labour in key sectors such as health and social care.

Since 1997 levels of net migration to the UK have markedly increased. When New Labour won a landslide victory the numbers coming into Britain were 107,000. Net migration figures steadily rose and peaked at 349,000 in 2004 before levelling off at 242,000 in 2009. After the Conservative Party formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, net migration figures increased from 294,000 to 379,000, despite a Tory manifesto promise to cap migration to 100,000 per year.

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the Conservatives had “no grip” on immigration and asylum.

"Labour would reform the points-based system to boost training, better link it to the needs of our economy and we would end hotel use and clear the asylum backlog through fast-track systems, more caseworkers and a new returns unit," she said.

“The Tories have no grip on immigration and asylum and no plan for the economy."

 

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