The Conservatives will keep their manifesto commitment of bringing immigration down to “the tens of thousands”, Theresa May has said.
The Prime Minister said the Tories believed immigration should be reduced to “sustainable levels” and that she would be repeating David Cameron’s controversial – and failed – manifesto target.
The pledge to bring immigration below 100,000 will form part of the party’s 2017 General Election manifesto, which is set to be fully unveiled in the coming days.
Mr Cameron introduced a pledge to cap net migration at the “tens of thousands” in January 2010, months out from that year’s general election. Despite a failure to meet the target it was repeated in the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto.
Ms May said: “I think it is important that we continue, and we will continue, to say that we do want to bring net migration down to sustainable levels.
“We believe that is the tens of thousands, and of course once we leave the European Union we will have the opportunity to ensure that we have control of our borders here in the UK, because we’ll be able to establish our rules for people coming from the European Union into the UK.”
Net migration hit a record high of 336,000 last year, up from 252,000 in 2010 when Mr Cameron took power. Net migration would have to be below 100,000 to hit the Conservatives’ target.
There were reports that Cabinet members disagreed about whether or not their party should keep or drop the target going into the election.
Just hours before Ms May’s comments the Home Secretary Amber Rudd suggested that she was personally in favour of abandoning the goal. When asked about the target in an interview with the BBC she said the situation had changed because of the decision to leave the EU “so it’s right that we look at it again”. She added that she wanted a policy that supported business.
Business group the Institute of Directors immediately criticised Ms May’s target as a “poor substitute for a proper immigration policy”.
Stephen Martin, the organisation’s director general, said in particular that he believed students should not be included in immigration figures.
He noted that that for the services sector labour mobility was part of free trade.
“A target is a poor substitute for a proper immigration policy. All parties should instead see Brexit as an opportunity to come up with a new system that is good for the economy, but also addresses voters’ concerns,” he said.
“The next government must improve the education system so young people are ready to fill roles in developing industries, and workers of all ages can re-train as needed to find fulfilling jobs. This is the only sustainable way to reduce the demand for skills from abroad.”
Liberal Tory group Bright Blue also criticised the manifesto pledge. Ryan Shorthouse, the organisation’s director, said: “Keeping the net migration target is a mistake. Controlling migration should not be centred on an arbitrary, indiscriminate and unrealistic figure. Instead, Theresa May should introduce realistic, effective and popular ways of controlling migration.”
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