The number of people moving to the UK from EU countries has fallen to the lowest level for four years, according to official figures.
Data from the Office for National Statistics released on Monday showed net long-term migration to the UK from the EU was 101,000 in 2017 – the lowest level since the year ending March 2013.
The figures showed the government remains a long way from meeting its “objective” to cut overall net migration to the tens of thousands, but the continuing downward trend will concern business leaders and employers, who have claimed the drop in immigration is costing the economy billions of pounds a year.
Overall, the data showed that about 280,000 more people came to the UK than left in 2017.
While net migration continues to add to the UK population, the figure is down from record highs recorded in 2015 and early 2016.
There has been a gradual increase in emigration since 2015 to approximately 350,000. Immigration has stayed stable at about 630,000, the report showed. Net migration from countries outside the EU rose to 227,000, the highest level since September 2010.
The figures appeared to confirm reports from the fruit-picking industry and social care employers that there has been a drop in the number of people applying to come to the UK from within the EU. The number of EU citizens moving to look for work was 37,000, a fall of 18,000 on the previous year and a continuing downward trend since June 2016.
Net migration from 14 longer-term member states such as Germany, Italy, Spain and France has halved since the EU referendum. An estimated 40,000 more Romanians and Bulgarians migrated to the UK than left last year, the joint lowest net migration figure for the two countries since the year to September 2014.
The target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands was set by David Cameron at the beginning of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010, but the figure has never been met.
Sajid Javid, the home secretary, is thought to be reluctant to maintain a target that was set when Theresa May was in charge of the Home Office.
In January, the home affairs select committee urged the government to drop the target on the grounds that failing to meet it “undermines” public trust. MPs on the committee said fears about the scale of illegal immigration had grown because of a lack of official data.
Appearing before the committee last week, Javid did not endorse the figures. Asked whether the immigration target was a “massive chain around your neck” and whether he wanted to ditch it, the home secretary smiled and replied: “Next question.”
The thinktank Global Future claimed last week that the fall in immigration was already costing the UK more than £1bn a year.
Mark Hilton, the executive director at London First, a lobby group representing leading businesses in the capital, said: “Too many companies are being forced to watch talented people walk out the door as we continue to wait for a long-term plan from the Home Office.”
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, said: “As this data shows, the government’s net migration target is utterly misconceived. It has never been met and the government’s most recent efforts to meet it led to the Windrush scandal, and deporting our own citizens. Like the ‘hostile environment’, it’s clear to almost everyone except Theresa May that the net migration target should go.”
Caroline Nokes, the immigration minister, said the statistics showed “more of the people who are coming to the UK are coming for the reasons we would want – to take up a definite job or to study”.
“I am completely and utterly unsurprised based on our experience that people didn’t feel welcome after the referendum with an increase in hate crime,” said Barbara Drozdowicz, chief executive of East European Resource Centre
She also said the decline in the pound meaning traders such as the many in construction had to give up 20% of their income and may have decided to leave the UK.