Suella Braverman has been accused of “going to ground” after net migration hit a record high of 606,000, with around 1.2 million people arriving to live in the UK in 2022.
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Thursday have fuelled accusations that the government has “lost control” of migration despite a 2019 manifesto pledge to bring overall numbers down.
Despite migration being one of the home secretary’s key policy areas, Ms Braverman did not comment on the figures or attend an urgent question on immigration in the House of Commons.
In the Commons, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper asked “what is the point” of Ms Braverman. She said: “Where is the home secretary, who is in charge of these policies?
“She has gone to ground. There are reports she is not even going to do media, she has not come to this house, she is in internal meetings presumably more private courses arranged by the civil service. What is the point of her?”
The record immigration figures come after days of intense pressure on the home secretary after she was accused of two breaches of the ministerial code.
And they come as Rishi Sunak’s government is grappling with an extraordinary row over former PM Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, with the official Covid inquiry threatening legal action over its refusal to share details.
Frustrated Conservative MPs have told The Independent Mr Sunak had to get on top of the “damaging” scandals which threaten to derail his efforts to regain credibility and win the next general election.
After the figures were announced, Tory anger was evident in the Commons.
Conservative MP Aaron Bell said the figures were too high and his voters “will expect to see them fall”, while his colleague Louie French said the “unsustainable levels of migration” were having a “significant impact” on housing in south-east England.
Tory MP Martin Vickers said voters’ “anger and frustration will grow when they consider these legal migration figures”.
Meanwhile, Tory MP Sir John Hayes said the government’s failure to deliver on a commitment to cut net migration risked “undermining people’s faith” in the party.
Mr Hayes, chairman of the Common Sense Group of Tory MPs, told The Independent: “When political parties come to power on a manifesto platform as clear as a pledge to reduce migration, people will say ‘well, did you do it, or didn’t you?’”
“You should not say what you can’t do, in government.” But Mr Hayes added there is “a long time” until the next election, and called on Mr Sunak and Ms Braverman to take “further steps” to deliver on the commitment.
Taking questions in the Commons, immigration minister Robert Jenrick said net migration to the UK is “far too high”. “The government remains committed to reducing overall net migration to sustainable levels. That is a solemn promise we made to the British public,” Mr Jenrick added
Mr Sunak agreed the immigration figure was “too high”. The prime minister said: “We’ve got to be sensitive to the needs of the NHS, the economy, but fundamentally the numbers are too high – I’m bringing them down.”
But Mr Sunak declined to say what level he would bring the net immigration figure down to, adding that “it depends on the economy”.
Ms Cooper said the Conservatives “have no plan and no grip on immigration”. “Ministers have completely failed to tackle skills shortages, especially in health and social care, or to get people back into work after Covid,” she added.
Ms Braverman announced a controversial crackdown on visas for international students’ families on Monday, which she claimed would cut net migration.
But official figures show several factors contributing to the total, including wider economic migration driven by shortages in sectors dominated by EU workers before Brexit.
Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the government to avoid a “knee-jerk” reaction to the immigration figures.
Ms Kearns said: “Students shouldn’t be included in net migration figures. The soft power dividends as academic superpower are significant.
We’ve proudly offered refuge to Ukrainians & BNOs and need to fill jobs wealth creators have made.”
And a Tory MP told The Independent more “nuance” was needed in discussing the figures. “People in my constituency welcome humanitarian refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. Students are here temporarily and my constituents are indifferent to it,” the MP said.
“What people object to is people coming into the country to do jobs that could be filled by those already here who are on the unemployment register,” they added.
Although a small fraction of the overall total, English Channel crossings also hit a new record in the year, and government schemes for Afghans, Ukrainians and British nationals in Hong Kong also brought in significant numbers of people.
Jay Lindop, director of the ONS’ Centre for International Migration, said: “A series of unprecedented world events throughout 2022 and the lifting of restrictions following the coronavirus pandemic led to record levels of international immigration to the UK.
“The main drivers of the increase were people coming to the UK from non-EU countries for work, study and for humanitarian purposes, including those arriving from Ukraine and Hong Kong.”
Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock told said the government had “lost control of the issue”.
“They have failed to have a strategy in place for our local labour market, and as a result of that, employers are being forced to reach for overseas immigration,” he told LBC Radio.
“We need a much more balanced approach, ensuring that we have the immigration we need of course, but that there’s much more opportunity for skills, productivity training, workforce planning to get our economy firing on all cylinders again.”
The ONS said that in 2022, 1.2 million people arrived to live in the UK long-term – 925,000 non-EU nationals, 151,000 EU nationals and 88,000 British people – while 557,000 people emigrated.
“People coming to the UK from non-EU countries for work, study, and for humanitarian purposes, including unique events such as those arriving from Ukraine and Hong Kong, have contributed towards relatively high levels of immigration over the past 18 months,” a report said.
“However, growth has slowed over recent quarters, potentially demonstrating the temporary nature of these impacts.”
Days after the home secretary announced controversial restrictions on international students’ to bring their children and loved ones to live in the UK during their courses, the ONS said the majority of students “leave at the end of the study”.
“Those who arrived for study reasons in 2021 are now starting to leave, driving an increase in total emigration from 454,000 in 2021 to 557,000 in 2022,” it added.
The ONS revised up its previous estimate of net migration in the year to June 2022 dramatically upwards from 504,000 to 606,000 – bringing it to the same estimate as the year to December.
Separate figures released by the Home Office showed that almost 45,000 people crossed the English Channel in the year to March, with 90 per cent claiming asylum and Afghans remaining the top nationality.
The asylum backlog has hit a new record high, with almost 173,000 people awaiting an initial decision in March – above a previous peak in 1999.
Despite Mr Sunak’s commitment to cut the backlog, his immigration minister Robert Jenrick suggested that processing asylum seekers’ claims more quickly could lead to more migrants trying to come to UK.
Mr Jenrick told the Commons: “It is not correct, however, to suggest that if you can process illegal migrants’ claims faster, that that will reduce the number of people coming into the country. In all likelihood, it will lead to an increase.”
Grilled by Labour MPs on the confusion – and whether or not the government want to reduce the backlog – Mr Jenrick said ministers did want to cut it, but added: “The faster the process, the more pull factor there is to the United Kingdom.”
No 10 insisted that tackling the asylum backlog is “the right approach” when asked about Mr Jenrick’s comments. Asked if Mr Sunak was worried his plan to deal with the backlog was going backwards, the No 10 spokesman said: “Obviously some of these approaches do take time to bed in.”
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “The human cost of the failure to process asylum claims is staggering. Many people wait years for a decision in which time they’re forced to live in poverty, banned from work, segregated from communities and detained in run down hotels.
“The government’s Illegal Migration Bill is going to make things much worse. People will still have to make the deadly Channel crossing because this Bill creates no new routes for people to safely reach the UK while our refugee resettlement schemes are failing.”