UK minister says meeting immigration target will be 'difficult'

Theresa May, the UK's Home Secretary, has told the BBC that it will be difficult to meet the government's target of reducing annual net immigration to below 100,000 by May 2015 but has said that she will continue to strive to do so.

The target stems from a commitment made by the UK's Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2010 when he was the leader of the opposition before the last election. The government has committed itself to reducing net immigration from its then level of about 250,000 to below 100,000 by the next election in May 2015.

The net immigration total is calculated by subtracting the number of migrants leaving the country from the number of migrants arriving in the country. Under the last Labour government net annual immigration rose to about 250,000.

Net UK immigration rising

The government has introduced many changes and managed to reduce net immigration to about 150,000 by September 2013. But since then, the total has started to rise again and the last two sets of figures have estimated net immigration at about 212,000 annually. Now the government has less than a year to cut net immigration by half.

On 25th May, Mrs May told the BBC's Sunday morning political programme The Andrew Marr Show 'We still have that aim of the tens of thousands. But of course it has become more difficult and net migration is too high'.

Mrs May said that immigration from outside the EU had fallen to the level found in the 1990s.

Government will 'do its damnedest'

Later on the same day, on the BBC Sunday lunchtime political programme The Sunday Politics, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles was asked whether the government would meet its target. Mr Pickles said that the government would 'do its damnedest' to do so.

When host Andrew Neil suggested to him that the government had no hope of meeting the target, Mr Pickles said 'I don't know that. I don't know that for a fact'.

The issue has recently hit the headlines again because of the successes of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the recent EU parliamentary elections. UKIP gained the greatest number of votes with 27% of the vote and now has 24 of the UK's 73 seats in the EU parliament.

Free movement of labour

UKIP campaigns against the UK's membership of the EU and against mass immigration.

It says that the two issues are linked because all EU citizens have the right to work in the UK due to the principle of free movement of labour which is one of the central tenets of the EU.

UKIP says that, if the UK left the EU, it could 'take control of its borders' and prevent unskilled labour from coming to the UK from Europe. This would allow the UK to welcome the skilled migrants it needs from outside the EU.

Changes to system

Since she became Home Secretary in 2010, Mrs May has introduced numerous changes to the UK immigration system. She has
  • Abolished the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) visa. This visa enabled foreign graduates of UK universities to stay in the UK and work for two years after graduation. They were allowed to work for any employer (including themselves)
  • Abolished the Tier 1 (General) visa which allowed 'highly skilled people' (mainly graduates) from around the world to come to the UK and work. The government said that many Tier 1 (General) visa holders were working in low paid jobs in the UK. These workers too, could work for any employer
  • Introduced a cap of 20,700 on the Tier 2 (General) visa for skilled workers. However, this cap has never actually been reached.
  • Removed the sponsorship licences from 700 colleges which prevents them from sponsoring foreign students from outside the EU for Tier 4 student visas
  • Prevented UK citizens and permanent residents who earn less than £18,600 a year from bringing foreign born spouses to live in the UK.

No visas for EU citizens

Mrs May says that thanks to the policies of the current Government there have been significant cuts in immigration from outside the EU. The difficulty for her and the Government is that immigration from within the EU has increased. EU citizens do not require visas to work in the UK means that changes to the visa system do not affect them.

The UK releases immigration figures on a quarterly basis. In February, the Office for National Statistics said the net annual immigration figure was 212,000 for the period ending in September 2013.

The latest figures were released on 22nd May, the day of the European elections. On that day, the ONS said that the net annual immigration figure remained unchanged at 212,000 for the period ending in December 2013.

Unchanged headline figure masks change in composition of immigration

While the headline net immigration figure remained unchanged, this disguised significant changes in in the nature of immigration into the UK.

The February figures showed that for the period ending in September 2013 526,000 people arrived in the UK as immigrants; 325,000 from outside the EU and 201,000 from within the EU. 314,000 people emigrated.

The May figures show that for the period ending in December 2013 the number of immigrants from outside the EU fell by 11,000 compared to the February figures. But the number of immigrants from within the EU rose by 43,000.

Tier 4 visas

The net immigration figures announced in May 2014, show that the non-EU figure included 219,000 students who came to the UK with Tier 4 student visas. Students who come to the UK intending to study for more than 12 months are included in the figures as migrants because they will be resident in the UK for more than a year.

This, according to the UN, makes them migrants. The others will include workers, spouses and family members of UK nationals and UK students who return to the UK having spent several years living abroad.

Sanwar Ali of workpermit.com said 'It is clear for anyone to see that the government has little hope of hitting its target. The 'tens of thousands' target seems to have been made in a desperate attempt to attract votes for the Conservative Party before the last general election."

Eastern Europeans earn more in UK

'People from eastern Europe will continue to come and work. They can earn more money here than at home'.

On 14th May, the junior defence minister Anna Soubry told BBC Radio 4's lunchtime news programme The World at One that the government 'don't seem to be on course' to meet the target.

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