December 3, 2013 12:07 am

Cameron hints that immigration target could be missed

David Cameron has said his aspiration to cut net migration to the UK to below 100,000 was based on balanced levels of EU immigration, in the prime minister’s first hint that Conservatives could fail to hit their target.

Speaking during his trip to China, Mr Cameron said he made the pledge at a time when the number of people arriving and departing from within the EU was roughly equal, something that is likely to change when temporary labour controls on citizens from Romania and Bulgaria are lifted in January.

Mr Cameron said: “I made the pledge of trying to get net migration down to the tens of thousands . . . on the basis that actually over the previous period migration flows within Europe have been relatively balancing out, when it’s been migration from outside Europe that’s been topping up the numbers.”

These comments suggest that the Tories are laying the ground for a failure to hit their ambitious target.

The Home Office has implemented a range of policies designed to clamp down on non-EU migrants, from overseas students to IT workers. But figures published last week showed that net migration unexpectedly jumped to 182,000 in the year to June 2013, in part because of a rise in prospective workers from Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.

However, the prime minister insisted he would not drop the target, saying: “We have seen migration from outside Europe come down in terms of net figures and we need to make further progress. So I’ll keep going on this. It’s very important.”

Despite these assurances, Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, accused Mr Cameron and Theresa May, home secretary, of being “in a mess”.

“David Cameron promised ‘no ifs, no buts’ to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, yet the net migration figure is increasing,” she said.

“This shows the gulf between their rhetoric and the reality on immigration. What we need is calm and sensible measures to address the impact of immigration rather than simply ramping up the rhetoric.”

Mark Hilton, head of immigration policy at business lobby London First, welcomed what he called the “belated realisation that the target is failing”.

“We need the right balance between clamping down on bogus visitors and welcoming talent,” Mr Hilton said. “Having an arbitrary target that covers only one source of migration fails to achieve either goal and sends confusing messages to those who want to come here and contribute to our economy and society.”

Mr Cameron has made a string of U-turns in other policies, however, something he defended as he travelled to Beijing. Concessions in areas such as payday lenders, plain cigarette packaging and energy prices, all areas on which Labour has campaigned hard, have been described by some as a “clear the decks exercise” before this week’s Autumn Statement.

He added: “Whereas obviously in the bubble people can get obsessed by this decision or that decision, the big picture about this government is that it has taken difficult decisions, it has stuck to them and it’s really beginning to deliver for the British economy.”

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