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Rishi Sunak has said he believes migration into Britain is “too high” and indicated he wants to bring the level down to below the level he “inherited”
The prime minister insisted he would not “put a number” on a target but suggested he could cut numbers to below the level when he took the job – around 500,000.
But Downing Street dismissed speculation the half a million figure would be set in stone and said the PM was not committed to a specific targets. Mr Sunak also declined to commit to cutting numbers by the general election, which is expected next year.
The PM is under pressure after apparently abandoning a Tory manifesto commitment to reduce net migration to 2019 levels, of around 226,000.
The figure exceeded 500,000 in the year to June 2022 – roughly doubling, and new figures due in the coming weeks are widely expected to show a further increase.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been publicly pushing for lower immigration, but Mr Sunak has taken a more pragmatic approach and said more people are required to fill labour shortages in industries like fruit picking.
“I’m not going to put a precise figure on it but I do want to bring them down,” the prime minister told BBC News,
“The numbers are too high and we want to bring them down. Now, the numbers last year were impacted by the fact that we welcomed Ukrainian refugees to the UK. Again, that’s something I think we are proud of.”
During a round of interviews at Hiroshima’s Seifukan tea house before attending the G7 summit, Mr Sunak said he is “crystal clear” he wants to reduce net migration.
Pressed by broadcaster Sky News about whether he would bring numbers below 500,000 by the next election, he said:
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“I’m committed to bringing down the levels of migration that I inherited, and I’m relentlessly focused on stopping the boats, that’s one of my five priorities, and we’re doing absolutely everything we can to do that.”
Asked about the 500,000 figure a No.10 spokesperson said Mr Sunak would “take stock” of figures in the coming months but noted that the PM specifically said he would not set a target.
“[The Prime Minister] said specifically ‘I won’t put a number on it’. We don’t know what the numbers will be next week and it’s right we take stock of those,” Downing Street said.
“But of course, the Prime Minister speaks to his Cabinet colleagues and the Home Secretary specifically, they’ve worked incredibly closely on the ‘stop the boats’ Bill and the work the Government’s taking forward to try and tackle illegal immigration.”
“Of course the Prime Minister will work closely with Cabinet ministers on the ambition to reduce overall migration.”
The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised that “overall numbers will come down” as the Government ends freedom of movement in the wake of Brexit.
But the reduction in immigration, a key issue in the 2016 Brexit referendum, has not materialised.
Despite some polls showing softening public attitudes to immigration compared to previous years, the issue has also moved up the political agenda following an increase in small boats arriving on England’s southern coast.
Mr Sunak raised migration with allies at a Council of Europe meeting in Iceland on Tuesday and said he believes he made “another big step forward” with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen to discuss the UK working with the bloc’s border force, Frontex.