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Why migration figures will pile more pressure on UK's ruling party

By Christian Hotten

UK net migration numbers for last year are to be released this week from the Office for National Statistics - the official data collector - and the figures are expected to be double those of the previous year. That spells trouble for the ruling Conservative government, which has for years promised voters it would bring the numbers down.

Simply put - net migration is the number of people who have come to settle in the UK minus the number of people who have left. It's an issue that has dominated the UK's political agenda for years, and divided the Conservative Party itself and the country beyond.

In 2016, Brexit voters were calling for the UK to 'take control of its borders' and leave the European Union. The net migration level then was at 336,000, which was viewed at the time as unprecedented. Many analysts have predicted that the upcoming net migration report will put the number at about 700,000, although some experts are forecasting as high as 1 million.

When he was prime minister during the Brexit debate, David Cameron said he wanted to cut net migration to the "tens of thousands". His successor, Theresa May, repeated the target, only to see levels rise to 200,000 a year. After her, Boris Johnson's campaign pitch to be prime minister was all about "taking back control of our borders" and introduced a points-based immigration system.

Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister, has taken a different line, however. When asked by the BBC recently what would be an acceptable level?, he responded: “I don’t want to put a precise number on it.” He did state that the numbers were “too high” but did not outline any measures that he would take to reduce it.

Some 51.9% of UK citizens voted in 2016 to leave the European Union. Many voters, then, may feel betrayed after the latest migration figures are released. Polling still shows immigration levels remain a concern for voters. However, digging deeper into the polls reveals there is far more concern about illegal immigration and people coming to the UK without skills. General migration seems less of a worry.

Nevertheless, a 700,000-plus figure would certainly be the highest level of net migration in British history and will provide further ammunition to critics who say the government is failing. It's a hot-topic issue among voters, and Labour, the opposition party, will inevitably seize on an opportunity to claim another broken promise by the government.

Net migration has risen in part due to 174,200 Ukrainian refugees fleeing war and 160,700 people from Hong Kong leaving for the UK as China imposed stricter control over the territory. There has also been a rise in the number of foreign students coming to study in the UK.

According to official figures released in March, 19.1 per cent of the workforce was born overseas, making the UK more reliant on immigrant labour than the US. The UK is experiencing the slowest return to pre-pandemic workforce levels in Europe, with 361,000 fewer people in the labour market, compared with the months before Covid hit in 2020. It’s the economic equivalent of losing a city the size of Nottingham.

Despite its promises to cut numbers, the government has looked to immigration in response to economic crises. From the construction sector to the hospitality industry, companies are complaining about a shortage of workers. For example, during the 2021 “trucker crisis” when deliveries of food and fuel were a problem, there was a shortage of more than 100,000 qualified lorry drivers in the UK. The government was forced to hand out 5,000 emergency visas in response.

Johnson had promised to put an end to “the old, failed model of low wages, low skills supported by uncontrolled immigration” - then economic reality set in. Back then, the net migration figure was running at about 240,000. Flash forward to this week, and the figure will be at least three times that.

The Conservative Party says its primary focus remains on illegal immigration - particularly the number of small boats crossing the Channel from France. But Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, will surely look to capitalise on the continued failure to deliver on the overall immigration issue. He will certainly have a lot of disgruntled Conservative voters he can appeal to for support as the UK approaches a general election scheduled for no later than January 2025.

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