Downing Street and Liam Fox fall out over student immigration statistics

Joe Watts
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox: Getty

Downing Street has rushed to shut down yet another cabinet row about overseas students, after Liam Fox indicated he thinks they should be removed from official immigration statistics.

Theresa May’s spokesman said her decision to keep recording foreign students within the figures remains in place, following the International Trade Secretary’s comments this morning.

Dr Fox said to MPs at a hearing in Parliament that he had told Home Secretary Amber Rudd the country should not “underestimate the value” students brought to the UK.

It comes after The House of Lords on Monday inflicted an embarrassing defeat on the Government over the issue, with several Tory peers rebelling against Ms May’s position.

Dr Fox told the House of Lords International Relations Committee: “It’s an ongoing argument inside Government and I've made my own views on that clear in private to the Home Secretary.

“I think there is a value for those who come and study in the United Kingdom.

“I 100 per cent accept the point that they will be in many cases imbued by the values that they experience while they are here, many of them will go on to establish long-term relationships with the United Kingdom, understanding our institutions.”

Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have also both signalled they disagree with Ms May, and back removing students from migration data.

Mr Johnson's call for international students to be left out of the net migration figures because they are a “massive benefit” to the UK, was rejected by the Prime Minister in December.

Two months earlier in October, Ms May and Mr Hammond found themselves at odds over the issue after the Chancellor also signalled he favoured a change from her chosen stance.

When Ms May was Home Secretary she doggedly refused then-chancellor George Osborne’s moves to remove students from official migration figures believing that the public would see it as an attempt by government to fiddle statistics downwards.

Universities, business groups and ministers have warned that pushing down student numbers to hit the target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands, will damage the UK’s economy and its appeal as a destination for world class education.

Earlier this week a cross-party coalition in the Lords voted by a majority of 94 to end the policy of including overseas students in the Government's target.

Eight Tory rebels backed the winning amendment, including former universities minister Lord Willetts.