A damning report has accused the Government of fuelling “toxic” anti-immigrant feeling just as it emerged that ministers have for years vastly overestimated the number of foreign students staying in Britain.
The inquiry from a cross-party group of politicians said Theresa May’s discredited target of cutting net migration to under 100,000 was particularly to blame for “stoking anxiety” that has accompanied unprecedented hate crime following the Brexit vote.
With the Government under pressure from business and civil groups as it prepares to reshape the UK’s immigration policy, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced a commission to explore the economic benefits of people coming into the country.
In their report, Integration Not Demonisation, the politicians were damning about the Government’s controversial target to bring annual net migration down to tens of thousands.
They said: “By setting targets for the reduction of immigration which were never achievable and which they inevitably went on to miss repeatedly, ministers undermined public confidence in the ability of the Government to manage immigration.
“Rather than defusing public concerns regarding demographic and cultural change, then, officials have unnecessarily stoked anxiety over immigration and encouraged the growth of populist anti-immigrant sentiment.”
Calling on fellow politicians to tone down their language, the group warned that rhetoric used during the EU referendum led some people to feel “they could act on racist attitudes which had previously gone unexpressed”.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration pointed to a marked increase in incidents of racist abuse directed at migrants and an unprecedented spike in racially or religiously aggravated hate crime in the months following the Brexit vote.
They called for a major drive to integrate immigrants, warning that they increasingly lead “parallel lives” in Britain and proposed compulsory English classes for newly arrived migrants who cannot speak it, funded by loans to be repaid once they reach a salary threshold like student loans.
Chuka Umunna, the Labour MP who chairs the group, is also a leading supporter of Open Britain, which is running the Drop the Target campaign with The Independent, urging the Government to scrap the drive to lower net migration to the tens of thousands.
He said: “The demonisation of immigrants, exacerbated by the poisonous tone of the debate during the EU referendum campaign and after, shames us all and is a huge obstacle to creating a socially integrated nation.
“We must act now to safeguard our diverse communities from the peddlers of hatred and division while addressing valid concerns about the impact of immigration on public services, some of which can contribute to local tensions.”
The report urged the Government to allow the UK’s nations and regions to set their own immigration policy including the ability to issue time-limited “regional worker visas”, while having a legal duty to promote integration.
Calling for “fair movement” after Brexit, the group said the UK could attach conditions to the EU’s free movement scheme like some other EU countries, which would allow continued access to the single market.
Newcomers applying to be British citizens should contribute to their community by doing voluntary work, the group proposed, and the Government should set up an “integration impact fund” for projects in immigration hotspots, financed partly by a levy on businesses which depend on migrant labour.
It emerged yesterday that data on the number of overseas students entering and leaving the country – used to justify a harsh approach to foreign students – has given a skewed picture of the number of individuals remaining in the country after studies suggested it could have been as high as 100,000 a year.
But new data collected by the Home Office and released yesterday suggested only around 4,600 students overstayed the period allowed by their visa each year, casting a different light on the debate.
The new information has accompanied a fresh drive from those within government who think student numbers should not be counted in net migration data, with the Home Secretary’s new commission set to focus on exploring the economic benefits of students to the UK economy.
But just as universities applauded that move, the private sector sounded the alarm about other immigration statistics released yesterday suggesting Brexit has deterred much needed talent from coming to the UK.
EU net migration was estimated at 127,000 in the 12 months to March, down 51,000 on the previous year, leading the ONS to herald a “statistically significant change”.
Ms May will likely stick to her target of lowering immigration to the tens of thousands at least until she announces how she will reshape post-Brexit immigration policy, which she has promised will reflect employers’ needs.
The Prime Minister’s allies argued that the fall in annual net migration announced yesterday showed progress towards the target. They also said the Government was fully committed to integration, pointing to its Controlling Migration Fund to help local authorities facing pressures from immigration.
Richard Tice, co-chair of Leave Means Leave, said: “There is nothing ‘poisonous’ about wanting to take back control over Britain’s borders, in fact Chuka Umunna should be ashamed to suggest there is. Chuka is in complete denial about the referendum result and is trying to retain a form of freedom of movement which is completely against the democratic will of the British people.”
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