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Net migration figures close to highest ever levels set backdrop to EU referendum debate and a squeeze on skilled labour recruitment

21 May 2015

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New data from the Office for National Statistics highlight the continued difficulty the government will face in any attempt to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said today.

The latest statistics show net migration of 318,000 to the UK in 2014. This is the second highest net migration level on record. The Conservative manifesto committed to keeping an “ambition” of reducing net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands—a goal that was pledged in the party’s 2010 manifesto but not met during the last parliament.

In the first migration statistics since the general election, net migration of EU citizens (178,000) was almost as high as net migration from outside the EU (197,000), each up by about 50,000 since 2013. Recent increases in EU migration form the backdrop to UK’s upcoming referendum on EU membership and its negotiations with other EU members over the terms of the UK’s continued membership of the union.

Non-EU immigration for work purposes has increased by 24,000 since 2013. These figures follow the publication last week of data from a Freedom of Information request by the Migration Observatory which showed that the cap on skilled (Tier 2 general) migration from outside the EU may start to constrain this flow over the course of this year for the first time. The cap currently stands at 20,700, but has not yet been tested because applications for work visas remained relatively low until recently.

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “Today’s figures show how difficult it would be to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’. Net migration has risen even despite new restrictions on family, work and student visas that were introduced during the last parliament.”

If the cap on skilled migration does start to prevent employers from accessing certain non-EU staff shortly, then the first people it will affect will be skilled migrants on relatively low wages – those with salaries just above the minimum threshold of £20,800. One of the largest groups of these is nurses.

Sumption added: “Today’s data indicate that it is increasingly likely that some employers – including the public sector – may find themselves unable to recruit non-EU staff over the next year. If this happens, we may see some of them turning to EU workers instead.”

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