DAVID Cameron has under a year to slash net migration by more than half after official figures showed another big jump in immigration to the UK from within the European Union.
The Prime Minister and Home Secretary Theresa May pledged to cut net migration – the difference between those leaving and arriving in the UK –to below 100,000 by the general election on 7 May next year.
But this target is moving further out of reach as new data from the Office for National Statistics showed net migration increasing to 212,000 in the year to December, from 177,000 the previous year.
This was driven by a “statistically significant” increase in EU citizens migrating to Britain, which the government has little power to control, from 158,000 to 201,000 year-on-year.
The figures were released as voters went to the polls in the European elections, a political contest that has seen immigration emerge as a defining theme.
Opinion polls have indicated that Ukip has an excellent chance of winning the election when votes are finally counted on Sunday night. Nigel Farage’s eurosceptic party has been picking up support – despite a series of gaffes that have sparked accusations of racism – suggesting that its policies to curb immigration are striking a chord. The polls have suggested Ukip could take its first seat in Scotland.
Against a backdrop of growing concerns over an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians to the UK, and a surge in popularity for Ukip, Mr Cameron last year rushed through a series of tough measures to clamp down on “abuse” of free movement between EU member states.
But, as voters took to the polls, MPs and immigration campaigners urged the government to drop its “arbitrary” target.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the home affairs select committee, said: “Despite the government’s best efforts and repeated commitments to reducing the net migration figure it has remained the same. Controlling EU migration is impossible without reform. It is clear that their aim is unrealistic and unachievable.
“The government should drop their target now.”
Ukip leader Mr Farage said: “With under a year left to the general election the verdict is clear. David Cameron has broken his solemn promise to the British people on one of the most important political issues. And he has done so because he refuses to take back control of our borders in respect of more than 400 million people from more than two dozen countries on continental Europe.”
Some 526,000 people migrated to the UK in the year ending December, up from the 498,000 the previous year, while 314,000 emigrants left the country, down from the 321,000 the previous year. Within these figures, 104,000 citizens of so-called EU15 countries – pre-2004 members – arrived in the UK, up from 85,000 in the previous year.
Around 70,000 citizens of the EU8 countries – which joined the EU in 2004 and include Poland – came to the UK in the period, compared with 60,000 the previous year. And 23,000 citizens of Romanian and Bulgaria arrived in the period, before employment curbs were lifted, up from 9,000 previous year.
Immigration and security minister James Brokenshire said: “Uncontrolled, mass immigration makes it difficult to maintain social cohesion, puts pressure on our public services and forces down wages for people on low incomes.
“While recent net migration levels remain stable, the figures show that it has fallen by a third since its peak in 2005 under the last government and that this government’s reforms have cut net migration from outside the EU to levels not seen since the late 1990s.
“We are building an immigration system that is fair to British citizens and legitimate migrants and tough on those who abuse the system or flout the law. We want to ensure that people come to the UK for the right reasons – to work hard and contribute to our economy and society.”
The number of Romanian and Bulgarians applying for National Insurance numbers increased to 65,000 in the year to March, from 35,000 the previous year, but only 22 per cent applied since restrictions to the labour market were lifted for the two countries on 1 January.
Official employment figures released earlier this month actually showed a drop in the number of workers in the UK who were born in the eastern European countries.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “David Cameron and Theresa May’s flagship immigration pledge is in shreds. They promised ‘no ifs, no buts’ to get their net migration target down to the tens of thousands by the end of the parliament, and the actual figure is over twice that.”
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of campaign group Migration Watch UK, said: “These new figures confirm that migration from the EU has blown the government off course in meeting its overall target.”