The Office for National Statistics released its latest quarterly report today, offering the opportunity to shed light on the progress of the Government's tougher UK immigration measures.
The Conservative Party made reducing net migration to the UK to the 'tens of thousands' an election pledge in 2010; upon taking parliament, net migration to the UK stood around the 250,000 mark.
The Conservatives, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, have set about making changes to the UK visa and immigration systems which have included adding salary thresholds and caps to visa numbers, removing post study work rights for international students and clamping down on fraudulent student visas.
As many of the changes concern routes into the UK used primarily by legitimate immigrants wanting to move to the UK for bona fide reasons, the changes have been met with dismay with accusations of making the immigration process deliberately harder for legitimate migrants while doing little to tackle illegal immigration.
Just this week, one London university had its licence to welcome overseas students revoked, leaving as many as 2,000 students uncertain of their immigration (and education) status and proving that the Government means business. The debate over whether to include student numbers in net migration figures at all is an ongoing and embittered debate.
However, despite the tough resolve and harsh restrictions added on to policy, immigration figures published in May showed an almost negligible decrease in net migration - down just 3,000 to 252,000.
The figures were quickly labelled a failure by opposition politicians but Immigration Minister Damian Green insisted there were positives to be taken and reverted to the much reused and recycled refrain of comparing fixing the immigration system to 'turning round an oil tanker'.
The latest report from the ONS shows a more substantial decrease, down to 216,000 in the year to December 2011. While this may be appear to be a considerable change - almost 15% - the ONS was quick to point out that this was not statistically significant.
|Total long-term international migration estimates, 2002–2011
|Source: Office for National Statistics, August 2012
The number of National Insurance numbers issued to foreign workers also fell by 15% in the year to March.
There was also a slight increase on the long-term emigration from the UK in the same period, with education being the most common reason for people leaving.
It was however, students entering the UK that will perhaps generate the most headlines. In the year to June 2012, just over 280,000 student visas were issued: a 21% drop.
That did not stop Immigration Minister Damian Green praising the figures as proof tougher measures were starting to tell.
"We are now starting to see the real difference our tough policies are making, with an overall fall in net migration and the number of visas issued at its lowest since 2005," said the minister.
"At the same time, there are encouraging signs that we continue to attract the brightest and best and to support tourism in the UK.
"We will continue to work hard to ensure that net migration is reduced from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of this parliament.
"We are doing this by improving the selectivity of our immigration system and increasing enforcement activity to prevent people coming into the UK illegally and removing those with no right to be here."
Criticism - figures too high
Sir Andrew Green of MigrationWatch UK, which favours tougher immigration methods, said 216,000 is still 'far too high' and proved further changes were called for.
"The Government must ensure that they pursue the national interest ahead of vested interests," said Sir Andrew.
"They now need a blitz on bogus students and much tougher action on enforcement and removal. For too many years we have had only a token effort at tackling illegal immigration."
Criticism - figures too low
However, left-leaning think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), who have consistently argued the need for current levels of net migration, said the figures showed 'the folly of the Government's target to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year'.
"The combination of recession and immigration policy changes may be starting to have an impact but more than a third of the fall is due to a rise in emigration," said Sarah Mulley, IPPR associate director.
"The statistics show that the Government remains a long way from its goal."
Ms Mulley conceded that the Government was making progress, but the wrong progress.
"The Government is making progress towards its target but only at significant economic cost: reducing the numbers of skilled migrants who come to the UK to work hard, pay taxes, help businesses grow, and staff our public services, as well as fee-paying students who support our colleges and universities and provide jobs for thousands."
Education providers shared Ms Mulley's concerns, claiming the drop in student visa numbers were very concerning for the country's multi-billion pound international education industry.
"A drop in international students will damage our universities, which rely on the economic contribution these students make, and deny domestic students the opportunity to mix with multinational academic peers," said Michael Corner of the international education provider Study Group.
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