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Net Migration

Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how they intend to meet their commitment to reduce net migration, given the estimate by the Office for National Statistics, published on 24 November, that net international migration to the United Kingdom was 504,000 for the year ending June 2022.

The Government are committed to controlling immigration and ensuring that it works in the UK’s best interests. Our immediate priority is continuing to tackle abuse in the system and prevent dangerous and illegal crossings. In the medium to long term, we will continue to strike a balance between reducing overall net migration and ensuring that businesses have access to the skills that they need.

My Lords, half a million immigrants in one year is truly extraordinary: more than the population of Manchester or Edinburgh. Admittedly, that includes 200,000 refugees from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan. Even if you allow for that, it is now clear that the Government’s points-based system has opened up nearly half of all full-time jobs to immigrant workers. Will the Government now retighten the requirements for work visas for students and dependants so as to get a grip on the huge wave of immigration that they have so foolishly sparked off and which, rightly, is a very serious concern to many members of the public?

As the noble Lord rightly observes, the net migration figures estimated by the ONS this year reflect the very unusual international circumstances in which we find ourselves. Home Office statistics show that we have helped over 144,000 people from Hong Kong, 144,600 people fleeing the war in Ukraine and nearly 23,000 people from Afghanistan to find safety in the UK. This means that the current set of figures is an outlier. The level of immigration for study visas reflects government policy, in that we are encouraging students from other parts of the world to study at British universities, with the great benefit that brings both to Britain and to those people who have the benefit of a British education.

My Lords, overnight briefings on the issue of “safe country” take me back 20 years. Last week’s briefings in relation to overseas students would take us back 60 years. Will the Minister make absolutely clear that those briefings were incorrect—because they were economically illiterate, intellectually unsustainable and incredibly damaging to our education system?

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that, over the last decade, total immigration —which ran at half the level of the last 12 months—was equal to the combined populations of Southampton, Portsmouth, Oxford, Nottingham, Middlesbrough, Leicester, Exeter, Derby and Carlisle? We wonder why we have a housing shortage. Has my noble friend the Minister ever heard those who oppose any tightening of immigration restrictions recognise that they are condemning a whole generation of British-born young people to living at home or in cramped bed-sits until they are middle-aged?

It may assist my noble friend if I remind the Chamber that work visas are 82% higher than they were in 2019 and that this is in part driven by an increase in health and care visas, which make up 50% of all skilled worker visas issued. Family-related visas are 31% lower than in 2019. It is clear that there is a need for more people in the health and care sector, and visas are awarded in relation to that. That is the reason for these exceptional figures. Again, I point to the fact that the figures this year reflect the problems of coming out of the pandemic and the international conflict that we have had to deal with.

My Lords, have I got this right? The Government insist on including students in the immigration statistics. Students form one-third of people coming into the country, thereby artificially inflating the migration numbers. The Government’s reaction is to seek to ban students, harming the higher education sector and the economy. Can they really not think of a better way to manage this, starting by excluding students from the immigration statistics?

Could my noble friend explain why the Government have limited the number of medical school places to 7,500? This deprives several hundreds and maybe thousands of our young people the chance to pursue a medical career. In the last five years, we have recruited 50,000 doctors from overseas, some of whom have come from less-developed countries, which I at least regard as a shameful practice.

I note what my noble friend says, but the level of provision of medical training is a matter for the Department of Health and the Department for Education.

My Lords, is it not true that one of the great attractions of this country is that people can come in and get employment without any real problem whatsoever, and that the major error that we have had is the abandonment of the policy we had in 2010 to have a form of identity for every individual in the country? This has now been exposed as a major failing of the then Tory and Lib Dem Government, and something needs to be done to address it.

My Lords, should we not recognise that the people who pay thousands of pounds to people to carry them across the channel actually want to come here? They find coming here beneficial, and the economy finds it beneficial when they come. Why do we not have a system in which we distinguish between refugees and economic migrants and welcome economic migrants as a very good thing?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. We have indeed such a system. The points-based immigration system is designed to entice to the UK those workers who wish to come who are qualified by reason of the scheme. The asylum system exists to assist those who are claiming asylum or other protection.

I put it simply to the Minister, following the questions he has had from around the House: would it not be helpful for a Minister of the Crown to stand up at that Dispatch Box and say, “Of course we need rules about migration, but this country benefits enormously from migration, and we should welcome that fact”?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord that the country benefits vastly from legal migration. Indeed, that is why we have arrangements to achieve that objective.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that there are about a quarter of a million overseas students whom we welcome to this country, but is he also aware that many of those also ask for dependent relatives to be brought in? Surely dependent relatives should not be allowed in. It is the students who require access, not their families.

I thank my noble friend for that question. The position is that the types of students who are now availing themselves of British educational opportunities tend to be older, and there are restrictions around the provision of visas for family members. They are restricted to those on a postgraduate course—broadly, not undergraduate courses—and to a course of nine months or longer, if the course of study is with an accredited institution with a track record of compliance with immigration requirements. It appears to be the case that, of the visas issued to students and dependants, about one in five go to dependants and there is no reason in the Government’s view to change that position at this time.

My Lords, the Minister has been asked several times a question that, with great respect, he has not answered: why are international students, who bring significant income to our universities and are an ornament to them in many other ways, included in migration statistics, with or without dependants? They distort those statistics, which, frankly, does not serve the Government’s purposes very much. Why are they still part of the immigration statistics? He has not given us an answer to that.

I thank the noble Baroness for the opportunity to clarify the position. The ONS prepares these estimates in its own way, and it is utilising on this occasion a new methodology derived from various sources to estimate, effectively, emigration as well as immigration. The choice is taken to include students, for reasons of transparency, and that seems to me entirely sensible. The number of visas issued to students is available to the Home Office as a figure. That is only a part of the picture when considering the figures that the noble Lord, Lord Green, was referring to in his Question, which are of course the estimates provided by the ONS.