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We're nowhere near migration target, admit Tories

David Cameron's hopes of slashing the number of people moving to Britain suffered a fresh setback yesterday as figures showed net migration continuing to run at more than 250,000 a year.

The Prime Minister has insisted that moves to tighten up the immigration system will reduce the influx from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands by the next election in 2015. But the Office for National Statistic said net migration, the difference between numbers coming to Britain and those leaving, stood at 252,000 in the 12 months to the end of September 2011.

The figure was down by just 3,000 over the same period a year earlier, with barely any progress towards the Prime Minister's target. Mr Cameron's official spokesman insisted he stood by the commitment. He said: "It is still our intention to bring the levels back down to the tens of thousands. Clearly it is going to take some time."

The Home Office said reforms – including a much tighter visa regime for non-European students and an annual cap on skilled migrants – are yet to feed through to the headline figure.

Immigration fell from 600,000 to 589,000, similar to its level for several years, but emigration also dropped slightly from 345,000 to 338,000. Damian Green, the Immigration Minister, said numbers of student, work and family visas were sharply down in 2012 and blamed the latest figures on "the hangover from the old system of weak controls".

But Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Prime Minister is not being straight with the public on immigration. He should not make promises he can't keep on such an important policy area."