Net migration hit a record-breaking 745,000 in 2022, according to a revised analysis from the Office for National Statistics, numbers that Conservative backbenchers have today called ‘unsustainable’ and ‘unacceptable’.
In May the ONS said the number for last year was 606,000 – then a record high. Now, the organisation says the actual figure was almost 140,000 higher than first thought. Immigration in the 12 months to June 2023 was 1.2 million. Most – 968,000 – of these were from non-EU countries. The figure emigrating from the UK was 508,000.
Former minister Simon Clarke said it was “unsustainable both economically and socially” to have legal migration so high. Another Conservative MP, Jonathan Gullis, called the figures “completely unacceptable to the majority of the British people” and called for “drastic action”.
Home secretary James Cleverly insisted the government remained “completely committed to reducing levels of legal migration”, adding that ministers were “working across government on further measures to prevent exploitation and manipulation of our visa system, including clamping down on those that take advantage of the flexibility of the immigration system”.
Labour’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said today’s statistics showed “the scale of utter Tory failure on immigration, asylum, and the economy”.
A dent may be made in migration imbalance from January 2024 when foreign postgraduate students on non-research courses will lose the right to bring family members to the UK, under new rules announced in May.
In the 12 months to June 2019, dependents accounted for 6% of non-EU student immigration. That rose to 25% in June 2023.
In the 12 months to June 2019, dependents accounted for 37% of non-EU work immigration, rising to 48% in June 2023.
Jonathan Beech, managing director of immigration law firm Migrate UK, said the unprecedentedly high net immigration was the result of the UK’s reliance on overseas labour to fill job vacancies “as skills shortages continue across many key sectors including life sciences, healthcare, engineering and tech”.
He added that the healthcare sector accounted for more than 50% of all current sponsored visas. Dependents and students arriving in the UK also added significantly to numbers.
Beech said: “It has now been over two years since the introduction of the Graduate Visa Scheme. This no doubt makes the UK more attractive to new students, with the ability to stay and work for two to three years alluring as well as a major benefit to UK employers trying to fill job vacancies. We’re also seeing an increasing amount of work from employers wishing to sponsor their graduate visa holders, so they can continue to benefit from their skills, not lose this talent and be left with yet another vacancy.
“And we’re seeing some sectors recently enquiring more about sponsoring overseas workers, such as the construction and fit-out sector where many roles were added to the Shortage Occupation List. While the horseracing, horse breeding and hospitality industries have never been busier. It should also be noted that the Ukrainian and BNO (Hong Kong) visa schemes are also still open.”
Beech said that Migrate UK was in contact with many businesses that said they faced closure or stagnation without bringing in skills from migrant workers. He said: “Other sectors such as finance, engineering and tech are also still finding hiring and retention extremely difficult.”
Rose Carey, partner and head of immigration at Charles Russell Speechlys, said that ministers needed to completely shift the thrust of its immigration policies: “Instead of over-promising and under-delivering on reducing net migration figures, the UK government needs to focus on the positives of immigration and develop a system that delivers what this country needs, which is more migrant workers. With economists forecasting an increase in taxes due to the UK’s ageing population, the conversation should be about the benefits of migrant workers. We will need more healthcare workers to care for the elderly and more young workers to contribute to the economy.
She urged the government to resist the temptation to make the visa system more restrictive: “Of particular concern is the home secretary’s comment that ‘we do need to reduce our overall numbers by eliminating the abuse and exploitation of our visa system by both companies and individuals.’ This implies a review of the skilled worker visa category, the main route by which workers come to the UK and how companies in the UK employ migrant workers. In previous years we have seen a higher skill level and an annual cap. Introducing restrictions such as these would make the visa process difficult and more expensive for UK businesses.”