The Prime Minister has been told to “get a grip on immigration” – which is seen as the “biggest single issue” facing the UK – by members of his own party.
The PM should stop Cabinet in-fighting over the issue devise a clear plan to control the numbers entering the UK, say Conservatives who are concerned that the next official figures to be published will show the net influx of people rise to between 700,000 and a million.
MPs fear failure to bring immigration figures down will be punished at the ballot box. And Even Tory moderates are calling for action to prevent young people on student visits bringing in family members, changes to the salary cap and a limit on the number of annual visas awarded.
Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said the UK was “addicted to cheap labour” and needed to invest in technology to perform low-paid tasks such as picking and cleaning fruit. He said high net migration figures were contributing to the country’s housing crisis and the number must be brought down.
“We seem as the Conservative Party now, compared to under Mrs Thatcher, incapable of taking tough decisions and seeing them through quickly,” Sir Iain told the Independent. “We have been in power now for four years, we set ourselves a task of reducing migration and if we don’t achieve that then the public will mark that down against us.
“So don’t start making excuses about why cheap labour is necessary here. We need to say to people if you invest in technology you will be offered significant tax relief to get rid of the cheap labour.”
Meanwhile, former cabinet minister David Davis said home secretary Suella Braverman should focus on fixing the immigration system rather than seeking to blame others, as Tory MPs continued their in-fighting over the issue. “You have to agree on a systematic policy. There’s no point attacking each other,” he said.
Professor Brian Bell, the Government’s migration tsar, wanted to see cuts in the number of foreign graduate visas, over suggestions that they offered a route to stay in the UK on often low-skilled and low-paid jobs up to two years after their studies had finished.
The chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee told The Telegraph: “An offer to do anything you want for two years seems unnecessary to us, so personally I’ve never been massively in favour of the graduate route.”
Ms Braverman appeared to be at odds with senior cabinet ministers on the issue of cutting numbers amid government infighting, after receiving backing for just one of her proposals. Last week she urged the PM to stick to the 2019 Tory Party manifesto commitment to reduce overall immigration figures.
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She told a recent conference that there was “no good reason” the UK could not train its own fruit pickers. Shortly afterwards, Mr Sunak announced another 45,000 seasonal agricultural visas, with the capacity for a top-up of 10,000.
Some centrist Tory MPs – worried the forthcoming immigration figure would spark fresh outrage from floating voters angry at the failure to stop the small boats – feared No 10 was getting mired in uncertainty over immigration. One senior Tory moderate, a Sunak supporter, said: “The frustration is that the Government hasn’t been clear on what it wants and what the immigration strategy is. We have to get a grip.
“Constituents get outraged by immigration. But what really gets them p****d off is illegal migration. We need to have a clear argument on legal migration.”
Robert Buckland, the former justice secretary, said: “Let’s have a sophisticated debate rather knee-jerk nonsense about the need for British pickers. We have to get real and consider the need to get the economy growing, the need to have people fill shortages in care homes and agriculture – rather than jumping up and down about an overall number.”
Ms Braverman has five proposals to cut legal migration – including raising the salary threshold for skilled workers and reducing the time foreign students can stay in the country, according to a report in The Times.
But the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and education Secretary Gillian Keegan were reportedly pushing against moves, with only a proposal to stop foreign master’s students from bringing over family members thought to be agreed upon.
Britain’s top universities warned Mr Sunak against a crackdown on overseas students and urged the Government to depoliticise the issue by taking students out of the overall net migration figure. The Russell Group, representing 24 elite universities, said foreign students brought in “vital export income” and helped subside research and support for domestic students.
Business leaders weighed in on the argument, saying attention was being “deflected” by arguments over immigration, leaving important economic problems unresolved. Policy head Tina McKenzie said: “An easy-to-access and affordable business visa system is what matters to small firms and what the Government should be pursuing to tackle the persisting issue of skills and labour shortages.”
Kate Nicholls, the boss of industry body UK Hospitality, also called for ministers to “depoliticise” the issue. She said: “The overarching debate gets taken over by small boats, illegal migration, and overall numbers coming in, rather than it being a more nuanced, pragmatic approach.
“We need to have a much more grown-up discussion about immigration, how many people we have available to work in the labour market and what are the shortages we have.” No 10 has declined to comment.
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