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Net Migration Figures

Volume 830: debated on Thursday 25 May 2023

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, I shall now repeat an Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place. The Answer is as follows:

“Net migration to the UK is far too high. That was already clear from the previous set of official data. The ONS has today amended its previous published estimate of net migration for the year ending June 2022 to 606,000. The statistics published today show that net migration has flatlined since then. In the year ending December 2022, they show that net migration remains at an estimated 606,000. These particularly high figures are partly due to temporary and exceptional factors, such as the UK’s Ukraine and Hong Kong BNO schemes. Last year, 200,000 Ukrainians and 150,000 Hong Kong British overseas nationals made use of routes to life or time in the United Kingdom. Those schemes command broad support from the British public, and we were right to introduce them.

This Government remain committed to reducing overall net migration to sustainable levels. That is a solemn promise we made to the British public in our manifesto, and we are unwavering in our determination to deliver it. This week, we announced steps to tackle the substantial rise in the number of student dependants coming to the UK. The package of measures will ensure that we can reduce migration while continuing to benefit from the skills and resources our economy needs, because universities should be in the education business, not the immigration business. We expect this package to have a tangible impact on net migration. Taken together with the easing of temporary factors, such as our exceptional humanitarian offers, we expect net migration to fall to pre-pandemic levels in the medium term.

The public rightly expect us to control our borders, whether that is stopping the boats and addressing illegal migration or ensuring that levels of legal migration do not place undue pressure on public services, housing supply or integration. The Government are taking decisive action on both counts. Under the points-based system that we introduced post Brexit, we can control immigration; we must and we will.”

My Lords, net migration figures are at a record high, despite promises in every Conservative manifesto since 2010 to reduce these figures, with the 2019 manifesto pledging that overall numbers would come down. Despite the Minister’s Statement, it has clearly gone wrong and is not working. Would it not be a start to tackle the doubling of work visas? Would it not be a start to end the unfair wage discount in the immigration system, which is undercutting UK wages and exploiting migrant workers? Why allow a civil engineer from Spain, for example, to be paid a 20% lower salary than the going rate for a British civil engineer? Why do the Government not tackle migration by barring employers and companies from recruiting foreign workers unless they are paid the going rate? Would that not be a start to tackling the migration problem?

Clearly, the increase in net migration has been the result of global events, such as the world recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, and international events, as I outlined in the Statement, including the policy changes introduced as part of the new immigration system at the end of EU freedom of movement. All have had an impact on migration. The Migration Advisory Committee agrees that the discount available to employers employing foreign workers under the skilled worker route is a sensible solution for occupations where there are shortages, at least in the short term. However, no occupation should be on the shortage occupation list for ever. Sectors must therefore present a realistic strategy for ending their reliance on migration before such jobs can be added to the shortage occupation list, and present compelling evidence that they should remain.

My Lords, there is not time now, but perhaps the Government could initiate an informed cross-party debate on the long-term issues involved in migration. The pull factors in migration are that we have not been investing enough in education and training, and that companies have found it easier to recruit staff from abroad than to spend money training their own in too many instances. Also, in public health we need to reduce the number of people who are long-term unwell. There are also the push factors—climate change, conflict in other countries and, potentially, expulsion. The Turkish Government are talking about expelling several million refugees. The UK Government might wish to emphasise that we cannot manage migration without active international co-operation with our neighbours and others, which is almost entirely outside the current debate. Can the Government not attempt a constructive effort, to which I am sure other parties would respond?

I am not quite sure what the noble Lord suggests would result from such a negotiation. Of course it is right that the Government discuss international migration issues on a regular basis. We saw that at the recent meeting of the Council of Europe. We recognise that no single measure will control immigration. As the impacts of temporary pressures become clearer, we will keep matters under review. The Government will continue to strike the balance between reducing overall net migration and ensuring that businesses have the skills that they need. We continue to support economic growth.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that a promise was made at the time of the referendum campaign that immigration would be reduced? Looking ahead to the forecast for this current year, mindful that he said in his reply that net figures would reduce, will the illegal migration forecast for 2023 be higher or lower than the figures that he has given us today?

I am unwilling to engage in conjecture as to what the figures will be for the coming year, but it is certainly clear that the measures we have announced on the student route reform, which the House heard about on the previous Question, will have a considerable effect in reducing the levels of migration in those categories for the year commencing January 2024. We will have to see what the statistics reveal in due course.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has five priorities. One of them is to stop illegal migration through the boats crossing the channel. Everyone agrees that we must do everything we can to stop them. Another of his priorities is to grow the economy. If the Prime Minister wants this, why are we restricting businesses from getting the labour force they need if they cannot get it domestically? I just had a meeting with leading hoteliers. One of them is shortly opening one of the best hotels in London and is targeting under 100% occupancy: he cannot recruit the people he needs. We need to activate the shortage occupation list. That is the promise of the points-based system. That will help. If we exclude international students from net migration figures, we will not scare people with these high figures that are not a true representation of migration into this country.

The noble Lord neatly identifies the balancing act that needs to be performed by the Government on net migration. Clearly the Government cannot permit circumstances to arise where employers utilise foreign labour over domestic labour for the pursuit of greater profit. Of course, the countervailing factor is the availability of labour. The Government are obviously aware of these issues and make their decisions accordingly.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, of today’s high figure, asylum seekers account for approximately 8%, and that, even if the Bill we discussed yesterday and will discuss the week after next were to reduce that figure to zero, it would make virtually no difference to the net migration figures?

The whole point of the Illegal Migration Bill is to prevent dangerous and illegal journeys across the channel and by other routes. It is addressing a different, specific issue, obviously with the added benefit that eliminating illegal migration would go towards the reduction of the net migration figure. But it is not suggested that the Bill is the sole answer to the problems arising from excessive net migration.

My Lords, I do not blame my noble friend or the Home Secretary: since the 2004 free movement directive, no Government have been honest about immigration with the British people, including my own party when in government. “Take back control” does not mean that, among other things, we should have spent £1.3 billion so far this year on asylum seekers, their accommodation and other illegal migration funding, which is more than we have spent from the levelling-up funds on the north-east, the north-west, and Yorkshire and the Humber.

Amazingly, I find myself in agreement with the Liberal Democrats and Labour Front Bench. I respectfully say to the Minister that the idea put forward about wage differentials by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is absolutely right. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for too long, business has been addicted to cheap, foreign labour and has failed to properly train and pay our own indigenous workforce. If we are to have an honest debate, he has to concede that.

Finally, I say to the Minister that these figures are a potential existential threat not just to my own party’s electoral prospects but to people’s trust in moderate, mainstream politics. The alternative looks a lot worse unless we solve this problem.

I agree with some of what my noble friend has said. There is a measure of agreement across the House that the issue of salary discounts is very much in need of consideration. Of course, as the House will be aware, the Migration Advisory Committee is undertaking its review into the shortage occupation list, which I referred to a few answers ago. The Government asked the MAC to consider the 20% salary discount as part of the review when it commissioned it last year. We expect a report in the autumn, after which the Government will respond to any recommendations that it makes.

My Lords, in the migration figures out this morning, the figures for the asylum backlog—the number of people who have been waiting more than six months for an asylum decision—show that, despite the promise from the Prime Minister to eliminate much of the backlog by the end of this year, the figure has increased by 10,000. There are now more than 128,000 people waiting more than six months for an asylum decision. Would the Minister promise the House that the Prime Minister’s pledge will be met by the end of this year, given that we are now at the end of May? Surely it is time to allow those people to work—indeed, some of them could be working in the hotel to which the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, referred.

As the noble Baroness knows, the Government are taking immediate action to eliminate the backlog of people waiting for initial asylum decisions by the end of 2023. The Home Office has already doubled the number of decision-makers and the number will double again. To further accelerate decision-making, the Home Office is driving productivity improvements by simplifying and modernising the system. We have doubled the number of decision-makers in 2021-22, as I said, and we will continue to do so.