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Net migration to the UK hit a record 745,000 last year — 139,000 higher than previously estimated — with big increases in non-EU nationals coming for work, the Office for National Statistics said on Thursday.
The ONS said there were signals that immigration is now beginning to fall — it added that net migration for the 12 months to June this year was 672,000 — but Britain’s record immigration remains highly politically contentious.
The sharp rise in immigration since the introduction of post-Brexit visa rules has caused alarm within the Conservative party, piling pressure on the new home secretary James Cleverly to cut numbers.
The ONS said that there were 1.2mn long-term immigrants during the 12 months to June 2023, of whom almost 1mn were non-EU nationals, while emigration totalled 508,000.
“While it is too early to say if this is the start of a new downward trend, these more recent estimates indicate a slowing of immigration coupled with increasing emigration,” it added.
But it noted that the rise in immigration has already led to the fastest population growth in England and Wales for more than 60 years. The countries’ population rose 1 per cent from mid-2022 to 60.2mn a year later, the fastest increase since 1962.
The ONS said the latest increase in non-EU immigration was largely because of migrants coming for work, in particular in the health and care sectors, with a smaller proportion of people coming for humanitarian reasons.
But it said that 39 per cent of non-EU immigrants, the largest single group, came to the UK to study, the same proportion as the previous year.
The statistics agency added that changes to the system it uses for calculating non-EU nationals contributed to its new estimate of 745,000 net migrants to Britain for the calendar year 2022.
Cleverly said the figures were “testament to both our world-leading university sector and our ability to use our immigration system to prioritise the skills we need”.
But he added: “We do need to reduce our overall numbers by eliminating the abuse and exploitation of our visa system by both companies and individuals.”
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the statistics showed “the scale of utter Tory failure on immigration, asylum and the economy” and “prove the Conservatives’ abysmal record on skills, training and workforce planning”.
After more than a decade of Conservative promises to cut immigration, ministers are considering steps such as raising salary thresholds for skilled worker visas and limiting the number of dependants care workers can bring.
However, businesses are calling for visa rules to allow them to hire more freely in sectors facing chronic labour shortages.
“Without strong net migration, the available pool of workers may have been even lower,” said Paul Dales, at the consultancy Capital Economics. He added that the strong inflows were “encouraging” from an economic point of view, “as the UK’s shortage of labour since the pandemic has held down economic growth and boosted inflation”.
The impact of Brexit was highlighted by the increase in the net immigration of non-EU nationals from 179,000 in the 12 months to June 2019 to 768,000 in the period ending in June this year.
The Home Office and many independent economists say net immigration is likely to slow in future, as students complete courses and go home and a post-Covid rebound in cross-border movement eases.
However, the ONS said migrants were now likely to stay in the UK for longer than in the past, and that students and skilled workers were also bringing more dependants than before.
The Office for Budget Responsibility also noted an increase in “stay rates” in the economic forecasts published alongside Wednesday’s Autumn Statement.
But it added that rising emigration and a recently tightening of visa rules were likely to lead to lower net inflows in the future, with long-term net migration settling at around 245,000.
Additional reporting by Valentina Romei