May under pressure to ditch target as net migration still above 300,000

Jake Cordell
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Businesses say empty queues at the border would be bad news for the UK economy
Businesses say empty queues at the border would be bad news for the UK economy (Source: Getty)

Theresa May has come under fresh pressure to scrap her target to cut migration as the latest figures showed net migration is still running at more than three times the government's official "tens of thousands" target

In the year to March 2016, net migration - the difference between the number of arrivals and departures - came in at 327,000 according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in numbers published this morning. That was despite an improving economic outlook across the Eurozone and as the UK geared up to hold the EU referendum.

The headline figure was down slightly from the revised net migration numbers of 334,000 in 2015, but "not statistically significant" according to the ONS. In total, 633,000 people arrived in the UK, while 306,000 decided to head overseas.

Both immigration from inside the EU and outside the EU would have surpassed the Conservatives' 100,000 target on their own. The ONS said: "Immigration of EU citizens remains lower than that of non-EU citizens ... Work remains the most common reason for long-term imigration."

Read more: The public has no confidence in the migration system

Nevertheless, Nicola White, head of international migration statistics at the ONS said: "The influx of Romanians and Bulgarians has also reached a new high, although that's off-set by falls in non-EU immigration and from other central and eastern European countries."

The figures cover the 12 months to the end of March, during which period Theresa May was home secretary - the government minister with responsibility for immigration.

The target has come under fierce attack from the business community who have branded it "arbitrary" and "totally wrong-headed".

A poll out this morning from the British Future think tank showed just 37 per cent of the population believe Theresa May will be able to meet her target to bring migration down to the "tens of thousands", even after the UK has formally left the EU.

Long-term arrivals Long-term departures Net migration
European Union 268,000 89,000 180,000
Non-European Union 282,000 92,000 190,000
UK citizens 82,000 126,000 Minus 43,000
Total 636,000 306,000 327,000

Even with no movement of EU citizens, the government would still have missed its 100,000 target by a considerable amount. Arrivals of UK citizens refers to British passport holders returning to live in the UK after a spell abroad. Figures may not sum due to rounding.

The prime minister is also under pressure to grant EU citizens currently living in the UK the right to stay permanently - something she has so far refused to do, raising speculation May wants to use residency status as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the UK.

Experts were divided over whether immigration levels would go up or down over the next few months now the UK has voted to leave the EU.

"Immigration is unlikely to be reduced significantly outside the EU," said co-director of Open Europe Raoul Ruparel, as he pointed to the fact arrivals from non-EU countries, which the government already has full control over, have outstripped the number of EU migrants in every single year.

However, the shifting economic landscape could alter the dynamics. Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (Niesr) said "EU immigration is likely to fall significantly as a result of a slowing economy and the Brexit vote."

Proponents of migration claimed the reason the Conservatives' were unable to come anywhere close to bringing migration below 100,000 during the coalition was because the UK's economy was performing so much stronger and creating more jobs than the rest of Europe.

Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills at the Institute of Directors (IoD), also believes now those trends appear to be in reverse migration could fall.

"It would be unwise to predict what levels of migration we are likely to see post-Brexit until the details of our new relationship with the EU become clear. However, we do know that unemployment in the rest of the EU is falling, while the decline in the value of the pound has made UK wages much less profitable compared to what migrants can earn at home.

"Brexit aside, it is possible that the high levels of migration to the UK that we have seen in recent years may start to decline."

Amid speculation the new Prime Minister will respond to the figures with tougher immigration restrictions, the British Chambers of Commerce warned: "There must be no knee-jerk crackdown that leaves businesses unable to get specific skills from around the globe - or measures that hobble our education sector, which is one of the UK's export successes."

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