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‘Fighting chance’ net migration will fall to 150,000 gives Rishi Sunak crucial boost | Politics | News

Rishi Sunak has a “fighting chance” of slashing net migration to as low as 150,000, a bombshell prediction has revealed.

Professor Brian Bell, the Government’s chief migration adviser, revealed the Prime Minister could fight the next election having met the 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment made by Boris Johnson.

Professor Bell said a ban on foreign students bringing their family members with them was having a far bigger impact than the Government expected.

The measures, introduced by Mr Sunak and Home Secretary James Cleverly, could lead to net migration falling to between 150,000 and 200,000.

A source close to Mr Cleverly told the Daily Express: “Almost as soon as he was in the role, the Home Secretary said legal migration levels were unsustainable and too high, and so he and the PM introduced measures to bring it down by hundreds of thousands.

“If someone with the experience and professional rigour as Professor Bell is suggesting we may well achieve that goal we take notice and so should others. We’ll continue to focus on making that a reality.”

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to reduce the figure from 226,000 in 2019.

Mr Sunak and Mr Cleverly announced a series of measures to slash net migration from a record high of 745,000 in 2022. Analysts blamed a surge in student and health and social care visas.

But Professor Bell predicted the number of foreign postgraduate students and dependants could fall from 450,000 to 200,000 as the changes take hold.

He also said the increased salary threshold of £38,700 – compared to £26,200 – would lead to the number of foreign graduates staying in the UK to work falling from 70,000 to 26,000.

The adviser told reporters on Tuesday: “I think it’s entirely possible if you look at any of this that it looks like a really big reduction in international student numbers. It is going to have an enormous effect on net migration really quickly.

“We’re talking by September, you could suddenly see a massive drop.”

He pointed to a 50 to 60 per cent fall in the number of postgraduate students paying a deposit for courses this autumn.

Professor Bell added: “That will be a much bigger fall than the Government had expected.

“If that bears out when we get to September and actually see the enrolment numbers, I think it probably supports the view that the government will overachieve on that objective of reducing net migration on the students side and I think they have a fighting chance, therefore, of getting to where they wanted to be in terms of no increase relative to the 2019 manifesto.

“Probably around 150,000-200,000 is perhaps where you’d get to.”

Despite calls from critics to abolish the graduate visa route, Professor Bell added: « I think most of the hard work has been done – by the student dependant changes and the skilled worker threshold – in terms of reducing the long-run net migration effect of the graduate route. »

Conservative MP Tom Hunt told the Daily Express: “This is certainly encouraging. Bearing in mind the extremely high level that migration was at not long ago this would show that the new measures are really having an effect. We need to continue in this direction though until net migration is in the tens of thousands.”

The Home Office insider also slammed Labour’s immigration plan and Keir Starmer’s plan to stop the boats.

They said: “Labour are as eager as the people smugglers to scrap the Rwanda scheme leaving their party with no deterrent, removing any safe destination to send people with no right to be here.

“Then they are left relying on some hollow rebrand of a unit that already exists and is relentlessly focussed on breaking up the criminal smuggling gangs.

“They oppose our measures to cut legal migration, constantly sniping from the sidelines while our plan starts to work.

“Labour can’t be trusted to tackle high levels of immigration. They have no plan to.”

The Office for National Statistics is due to reveal the figures for the year to December 2023 next week.

But ministers were accused of ordering a « whitewash » amid growing fury over the graduate visa route.

The Migration Advisory Committee, of which Professor Bell chairs, rejected calls to abolish the entry route despite fears it is a « backdoor » immigration route.

But critics branded it a “boon for dodgy employers” and accused universities of “selling UK residency”.

Former Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said: “A university place should be for study. But the graduate route is a backdoor for foreign students to do low-wage work.

“The huge increases are concentrated in lower ranked unis, with a sharp drop in Russell Group attendance. So this route isn’t attracting top talent either.

“We urgently need to unwind the sector’s growing dependency on foreign students. The graduate route should be scrapped and we must fundamentally rethink our International Education Strategy (IES), including the completely arbitrary target of attracting 600,000 foreign students pa

“The MAC’s review today endorses the route partly because the IES would likely fail without it. The MAC’s conclusions have clearly been constrained by the narrow terms of reference deliberately set by the government. If you order white paint, you get a whitewash.

“As ever with migration policy, SW1 has become completely desensitised to vast numbers. Memories are short. It was the Con/LD coalition that scrapped the graduate route in the early 2010s.

“If these universities are selling good quality education to students, they have nothing to fear by the graduate route being scrapped.

“However, if their business model is premised on the ability to work in the U.K. with no minimum salary requirements, then that needs to change.”

The Migration Advisory Committee concluded overseas students should be able to stay in the UK for two years after their studies, despite concern amongst ministers the graduate visa is being used as a backdoor route into the UK.

But the Prime Minister’s Official spokesman said that HMRC data shows 69% of those taking up the graduate visa route in 2022/23 had been studying for one year or less, more than a quarter of graduate visa holders had not worked at any point in the financial year and of those who had earned in at least one month of that year, 41% earned less than £15,000.

And foreign students said they were told “outright lies” by recruitment agents “mis-selling the UK as an immigration destination as opposed to an education destination”, according to the report.

Agencies charged “unnecessary add-ons” and pushed specific courses or universities, with one student saying: “I had no idea where I was going.”

Yet the MAC found there was no evidence of widespread abuse specifically for the graduate route and it was not undermining the quality and integrity of the UK’s higher education system.

There has been a « large increase » in the number of graduate visas granted since the route’s introduction in July 2021, the report found.

In 2023, 114,000 were granted for main applicants, with a further 30,000 for dependants, according to the MAC.

Take-up of the visas is largely concentrated among four nationalities – India, Nigeria, China and Pakistan – which account for 70% of graduate visas, with India accounting for over 40%.

Graduate visa holders are initially « overrepresented in lower-paid work », but their outcomes improve over time, the report said.

The MAC review was unable to assess the risk of overstaying due to a lack of Home Office data.

Former minister Neil O’Brien, who co-authored a scathing review of the Government’s immigration policy with Mr Jenrick, said: “The MAC’s rapid review into the Graduate route is a whitewash – it could hardly be anything else, given its narrow terms of reference and the Government’s pretty clear preference not to do anything.

“But although a whitewash, the new data in the report is explosive.

“For example, working 40 hours a week on the minimum wage gets you just under £2k a month – yet the data shows that the great majority of people on the Graduate route earn less than that on average.

“In fact, people on the Graduate visa are on average earning half as much as UK workers. The Graduate visa has been a boon for dodgy employers.”

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