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Net Migration

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government why net migration rose to 745,000 in 2022, according to data published by the Office for National Statistics on 23 November; and what plans they have to reduce it.

My Lords, the increase in net migration since 2021 reflects a number of important factors including the introduction of our humanitarian routes, such as the Ukrainian and British national (overseas) schemes, and an increase in non-EU students and workers. Earlier this year we introduced measures to tackle the substantial rise in students bringing dependants to the UK, and the Government will announce details of further measures to reduce net migration in due course.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his outline, if I may call it that. It may help the House to consider the last two years of net migration because that comes to a total of 1.2 million people, and the significance of that is that it is the population of Birmingham. When you think about that, of course you think about the enormous expenditure there will be on infrastructure, hospitals and so on in return for a large number of immigrants, many of whom are relatively low paid. The impact on housing, schools, medical services—

My Lords, I think the House is asking if we can come to a question point. We must respect the noble Lord. Not everybody agrees with his contributions, but I think he must be heard and he must ask a question.

I am so sorry; I got that in the wrong order. My question is to ask His Majesty’s Government why net migration rose to 745,000 in 2022, according to data published by the Office for National Statistics on 23 November; and what plans they have to reduce it.

As I alluded to in my opening Answer, there are well-understood reasons why net migration is high at present. Global events such as the world’s recovery from Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the national security law in Hong Kong, along with policy changes introduced as part of the new immigration system and the end of EU freedom of movement, have all had an impact on migration. On 23 May the Government acted decisively by announcing a package of measures to reform the student route. We are working on further measures to prevent exploitation and manipulation of the visa system, including clamping down on those who take advantage of the flexibility of the immigration system, and we will announce details of these measures in due course.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that asylum seekers coming across the channel by boat are probably between 5% and 7% of the total figure? Is the hostile attention given to asylum seekers not totally disproportionate in relation to inward migration?

My Lords, I have enormous respect for the noble Lord, but these asylum seekers are illegal migrants. They arrive here by methods that facilitate the activities of criminal gangs, they place their own lives and the lives of others at risk while they are in the English Channel, they impose themselves on the generosity of the British taxpayer, and they are jumping the queue of legal migrants. I think there are principles at stake.

My Lords, last week it was reported that the Government will likely breach their own welfare spending cap for the fourth time since its introduction. Some 18% of Manchester is on out-of-work benefits, 20% of Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool, 23% of Middlesbrough and 25% of Blackpool. Where mass migration facilitates and is even required by this, porous borders are not progressive. What are the Government doing to get native Britons working again?

My noble friend asks a good question. The Government are encouraging all sectors to adapt, to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers by offering training, career options and wage increases, and to invest in increased automation technology. Supporting individuals to move into and progress in work is one of the DWP’s core strategic objectives. The Government are committed to supporting individuals who are stuck in low-paid work to progress, helping them to increase their earnings and move into better-paid quality jobs. The Government are extending the support that Jobcentre Plus provides to people in work and on low incomes to help them to increase their earnings and move into better-paid quality jobs. I alert my noble friend to the back to work plan published on 16 November—a plan to get 1.1 million people back into work—and refer him to the Chancellor’s recent Statement which, while raising benefits, also referred to getting people back into work.

My Lords, in 2021 international students added £42 billion to the UK economy through their fees, living costs and the NHS levy for them and their dependants. Why do this Government constantly portray them as a drain on the UK and why are they proposing to reduce their numbers, rather than recognising their direct contribution to our economy, communities and universities?

My Lords, I do not think that is what the Government are doing. Students are short-term, temporary migrants who leave at the end of their studies. We know from previous research that many also stay in the UK beyond their studies. In keeping with the UN definition of long-term migration, the Office for National Statistics has stated that it will continue to include students in its net migration statistics, and the Home Office supports that position. On the changes I referred to earlier, we should certainly welcome students here; however, we are taking steps to tackle the number of dependants who come with them. That is not inconsistent.

My Lords, following that last question, does the Minister recognise that the higher education sector is one of the major invisible exports that we have in this country, one in which we are truly world leading? Great care has to be taken not to damage that. Will he therefore say whether the Government have considered ways in which fee-paying students can be taken out of this equation, which is becoming so difficult to solve?

My Lords, I just alluded to that. The ONS is operationally independent of government—its work is overseen by the UK Statistics Authority—so any decision around that methodology would be for the ONS. Its definition of a long-term migrant aligns with the UN definition and is anyone who comes to the UK for 12 months or more. Students who remain in the UK for less than 12 months will not, at present, be counted in the ONS estimates. However, I am happy to associate myself with the noble Lord’s remarks about how higher education is a massive export industry for this country. Of course, it delivers enormous soft power benefits too.

My Lords, how has it come to the point at which net migration is three times the level of 2019, when the Government promised to reduce it? It has taken four years for the Government to come up with any sort of plan, but we do not know what it is because members of the Cabinet are fighting among themselves about what it should be. Can I make one suggestion? Do the Government agree with us that the unfair wage discount, allowing overseas recruits to be paid 20% less than the going rate, should be ended and replaced with proper training and fair pay in the UK?

The noble Lord is referring to the shortage occupation list. The Migration Advisory Committee is clear that immigration can be a sensible solution to occupations that are in shortage, at least in the short term, but the Government believe that no occupation should be on the list for ever. Sectors must therefore present a realistic strategy to end their reliance on migration before such jobs can be added to the list, and compelling evidence that they should remain. We asked the Migration Advisory Committee, as part of its recent review, to consider whether the discounts should be stopped. The Government are considering the recommendations of that review and will respond in due course.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister assure me that, notwithstanding former Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s suggestion that she had a deal with the Prime Minister on this matter, there is no plan to axe the graduate route for international students?

I am disappointed that my noble friend is referring back to that letter. I have already been very clear that there are no plans to affect the student graduate route. These measures are specifically targeted at dependants.

My Lords, the Minister suggested that people coming on boats are illegal by definition. If somebody from Afghanistan who has an ARAP number arrives in the UK that way because it is the only way they can come here, would the Home Office not give them the asylum to which they are entitled?

It is a very different question if they have an ARAP number. Why would they be leaving France, which is a safe country, to come here on a boat? That makes no sense.