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Immigration: Tories to keep ‘tens of thousands’ target

The Conservatives will once again promise to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” in their election manifesto, the BBC understands.

On Sunday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd refused to say whether the pledge – which was in the 2010 and 2015 Tory manifestos – would be repeated.

But the BBC understands it will definitely be in the 2017 manifesto.

The target, set by David Cameron in 2010, has never been met and recent figures put net migration at 273,000.

UKIP said the target was “vacuous” and the Conservatives had broken their promises “time and time again” on the issue.

Net migration is the difference between the number of people arriving into and leaving the UK.

The Conservative manifesto, setting out the party’s policies if it wins 8 June’s general election, is expected to be published next week.

Questions had been raised about whether the migration target would be in it after Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said that immigration was “not about putting numbers on it” but about ensuring Britain had the skilled workers it needed.

Asked whether she agreed with her colleague, Ms Rudd told BBC Radio 5 live’s Pienaar’s Politics: “It’s too early to say. I appreciate you want to push me on this but we are going to have to wait until the manifesto comes out.”

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Pressed on the issue again, she added: “That’s why we’re having a new manifesto. It’s not going to be identical to the last one.

“We’re setting it out for hopefully for a five-year term. We’ve got a lot to think through to work out what’s the best way to deliver on our priorities.”

Graph of Office for National Statistics data on migration

She added: “My personal view is, we need to continue to bring immigration down.

“I want to make sure that we do it in a way that supports businesses – you know we’re ending freedom of movement when we leave the European Union.

“So the situation from that time the [2015] manifesto… has changed because we’re leaving the European Union, so it’s right that we look at it again.”

BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith said many Conservatives were “deeply sceptical” that the target could be met particularly as, after Brexit, there were likely to be exemptions from the overall controls for workers in industries reliant on specialist and seasonal labour from overseas.

But he said the prime minister was personally committed to the target and there was a belief that it would both reassure the public and “focus minds” across Whitehall.

Speaking on a campaign visit last month, Theresa May, who was Ms Rudd’s predecessor as home secretary, told the BBC: “We want to see sustainable net migration in this country.

“I believe that sustainable net migration is in the tens of thousands.”

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Blue line

The Conservatives have promised new migration controls after the UK leaves the EU, when freedom of movement rules will no longer apply, but they have yet to set out the precise model they would adopt.

Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva, from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, said if the target was retained, he expected it to apply to a longer period than five years and possibly exclude certain groups.

“The key question is to what point this is going to be a flexible target… and react to the economy and new developments in the country,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

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Students on graduation day
Image captionThere have been calls for students to be taken out of the migration statistics

“The previous one was fixed. It did not change over five years. Maybe this one will be adjusted along the way.”

But he said ministers would still face the challenge of reducing levels of migration from outside the EU which, given it largely consisted of highly-skilled workers, students and relatives of those already lawfully in the UK, would continue to be hard.

Labour says it accepts that the principle of the free movement of people – which EU leaders say goes hand-in-hand with single market membership – would have to end after Brexit but that new immigration controls should not be the “overarching priority” as the UK leaves.

Chuka Umunna, who is standing for re-election in the London constituency of Streatham, said keeping the target would be “foolish”.

He tweeted: “The Tories persist in a migration target they’ve never met and are unlikely ever to achieve. Just drop it.”

UKIP leader Paul Nuttall said only UKIP had the “political will” to bring about radical cuts to immigration levels, promising to put “clear water between UKIP and the establishment parties” in its manifesto.

Among its proposals is a five-year moratorium on unskilled and low-skilled migration while its long-term aim was to reduce net migration to zero over a rolling five-year period, to be enforced by a new migration commission.

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