David Cameron's promise to cut immigration heavily by the next election was in doubt yesterday after a surge in numbers of east Europeans heading to Britain for work. The Home Office announced yesterday that net migration – numbers of people moving to the country minus those leaving – had reached a five-year high of 242,000.
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The rise was partly fuelled by the surprise return of large numbers of Polish and Lithuanian workers during 2010, after an exodus the year before amid alarm over the health of the UK economy.
Mr Cameron pledged in opposition to reduce immigration from "hundreds of thousands" to "tens of thousands" by the next election. But with net migration steadily rising over the past two years, the Prime Minister's chances of achieving that target appear to be fading.
The number of people coming to Britain has remained broadly constant since 2004, at close to 600,000. But the total of those leaving has dropped from 427,000 in 2008 to 344,000 in 2010, leading to a leap in net migration to 242,000. Net migration fell in 2009, partly because the steady influx of east European nationals – 70 per cent of whom are Poles – suddenly stopped. That year, the number of east Europeans leaving the country exceeded those arriving, but the most recent figures showed the previous trend encouraged by the expansion of the European Union in 2004 had resumed, with 42,000 more east Europeans arriving than departing.
Matt Cavanagh, the associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank, said: "A couple of years ago people might have thought the Polish economy was a bit better than Britain's; they don't now."
He said ministers would be forced into "even more drastic measures" to try to deliver on Mr Cameron's promise. Mr Cavanagh said it was time for the Government to admit its target "makes little sense, and can't be achieved without damaging Britain's economy".
The Government last month introduced a cap on the numbers of non-European migrants coming to the UK, as well as announcing a drive against bogus students and on those seeking to settle in the UK. Damian Green, the Immigration minister, said: "These statistics show immigration was out of control thanks to the old system. That is why we have already introduced radical changes to drive the numbers down and we will shortly be consulting on a range of new measures."
But Gerry Sutcliffe, the shadow Immigration minister, said: "The Government has gone very quiet on what was a flagship Conservative promise... [ministers] need to be clear whether this is Government policy or not, and they need to explain what workable policies they have to deliver it."
The number of asylum-seekers arriving in Britain rose by 11 per cent in the first three months of the year, compared with the first quarter of 2010. Separate figures showed that the total of foreign-born workers in low-skill jobs had more than doubled over the past decade from 298,000 to 666,000.Reuse content