OPINION - Net migration into the UK hits record high of 504,000

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

Who gets to live in Britain? How many? Does it matter where they come from? What skills should they have? And what are our responsibilities, both legal and moral, to those fleeing persecution?

Questions such as these are why immigration is such a big, sensitive subject. For some people, it is all they want to talk about, despite not knowing any immigrants themselves. For others, it is problematic to even raise the matter.

But immigration goes to the heart of what kind of country we want to be, and reveals some preferences about whether we truly think growing the economy should be the number one aim of public policy.

As our Home Affairs Editor Martin Bentham reports, net migration into the UK – that is the number of people entering minus those leaving – hit a record high of 504,000 in the last year. The largest contingent was comprised of international students, as well as refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan, and those arriving from Hong Kong via a new visa route.

The Office for National Statistics’s Jay Lindop has written a useful primer on how a combination of unique global events, from the ending of Covid restrictions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has led to this year’s particularly high figures.

These record numbers at first glance seem to be at cross purposes with business’s complaints about a lack of workers and a need to relax visa requirements. Young EU migrants – a traditional labour pool for the hospitality sector – have been largely cut off since the free movement of people ended. Can the sector adapt, either by employing different types of immigrants, raising wages or investing in technological solutions?

Today’s figures are also a reminder that, despite the headlines, asylum seekers remain a relatively small proportion of all those coming to Britain. Though, it must be noted that the backlog for processing cases remains absolutely enormous.

Immigration is a two-way street. Britain has an ageing population and we need people to come here – to work, set up businesses and generally promote wellbeing. Indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility noted last week that it was only “the higher-than-expected numbers of migrants coming to the UK under the post-Brexit migration regime” that added “materially to prospects for potential output growth,“ which is a dry way of saying immigration is one of the few engines of growth.

Of course, there are costs too, not least pressure on housing and public services. But one thing is clear – the act of leaving the EU has not ended, or indeed reduced the number of people coming to the UK. What it has done is changed the type of immigration and where many of those people come from.

This has inevitably led to painful adjustments for some, most notably hospitality. Meanwhile, large questions remain unresolved, such as the impact of the recession on the labour market and whether the UK can attract the high-skill migrants we clearly need. Ultimately, our immigration system has been through a dramatic change in the last few years, and we are starting to see the results.

In the comment pages, Anne McElvoy says Tory feuds are undermining Rishi Sunak and his bid to avoid an election wipeout. Anna van Praagh tries to get to the bottom of Britain’s missing workers. While Business Editor Jonathan Prynn predicts a different look and feel for Oxford Street, as retailers exit and are replaced by office space.

And finally, our friends at the Office of Rail and Road reveal that Waterloo has dethroned Stratford as UK’s most used station. Stratford has in fact fallen all the way to fifth and out of those crucial Champions League places.

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