Patrick Butler and Peter Walker, The Guardian, November 23, 2023
Net migration boosted the UK population by a record 745,000 in the year to December 2022, fuelled in part by a surge in overseas professionals arriving to work in the NHS and care homes and prompting a furious response from rightwing Conservatives.
Amid signs No 10 might consider tightening guidelines on what has become a totemic issue for some Tory MPs, one group of backbenchers said a failure to deliver on the manifesto pledge to reduce net migration could prove “existential” for the party.
Labour accused the government of “utter failure” over its stewardship of immigration and the economy, as figures showed a record numbers of asylum seekers in hotels and big increases in visas being issued to skilled workers.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the 745,000 figure for the year to December 2022 replaced a previous estimate of 606,000 after revisions were made to reflect “unexpected patterns” in migrant behaviour.
ONS data for the year to June 2023 shows a lower net migration figure of 672,000. Though this was a year-on-year increase of 65,000 from the previous time period, it has led to speculation that net migration may be on a downward trend, though the ONS said it was too early to tell.
Separate Home Office visa and asylum data showed there was little change in the total number of people seeking asylum in the UK, at 76,000 for the year to the end of September 2023. There were 56,042 people in hotel accommodation.
In the same time period, 25,000 people reached the UK in small boats, compared with 33,000 in the previous period. There was a sharp fall in the numbers of Albanians arriving in small boats – from 10,000 to 860 – though experts said it was unclear what was driving this.
The increase in net migration in the year to June 2023 – the number of people immigrating minus the number emigrating – was driven by an increase in people and their families arriving for work, notably in NHS and social care roles.
There were 322,000 work-related visas issued for this period, up from 198,000 in the year to June 2022. Nearly two-thirds of work visas went to Indian, Nigerian and Zimbabwean nationals, suggesting non-EU workers are replacing EU workers in sectors of the economy that are struggling to recruit staff since Brexit.
Suella Braverman, sacked last week as home secretary by Rishi Sunak, claimed the figures were “a slap in the face to the British public” and said she had unsuccessfully pushed for policies including a definitive cap on annual net migration, a near-doubling of the minimum salary for non-health or care work, and curbs on graduate and dependants’ visas.
The New Conservatives, a group of rightwing backbenchers, called on the government to come up with an immediate plan to reduce immigration numbers before the next election.
“The word ‘existential’ has been used a lot in recent days but this really is do or die for our party,” they said in a statement. “Each of us made a promise to the electorate. We don’t believe that such promises can be ignored.”
A spokesperson for the prime minister said: “We will look at increases or decreases that we’ve seen and consider whether or not they’re appropriate, and whether there is more to do to have a system that better suits the needs of the British public. That’s something we’re looking at right now.”
Asked if this could mean a cut in the number of visas for people working in health and social care, he said: “I can’t get ahead of policy decisions. We need to strike the right balance to ensure that people get the care they deserve, but equally that the system is set up correctly so it is prioritising those who benefit the UK.”
Ben Brindle, a researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “While humanitarian visas for Ukrainians and Hongkongers played a major role in net migration last year, their numbers have fallen more recently. Work and international study are now the leading factors contributing to net migration we’re currently seeing.”