Labour Party Autumn Conference, Brighton, Wednesday. Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper speaking this morning.

Labour has admitted for the first time that it will scrap the Conservatives’ target to reduce net migration below 100,000 if it wins next year’s General Election, in a move that risks alienating Britons concerned about increasing flows of migrants to the UK.

Speaking at a fringe event of her party’s conference in Manchester, Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, said she would abandon the controversial net migration measurement, which has been criticised by businesses and universities. Instead, Ms Cooper suggested she would pursue a more nuanced system that set specific controls and targets for each type of immigration from students to skilled migrants to foreign citizens joining family members in the UK.

“We would not have a net migration target because choosing net migration to focus on is the wrong thing,” the shadow home secretary told delegates. “We think immediately what should happen is that students, international university students, should be taken out of the net migration target straight away.”

Labour has previously been wary of explicitly dropping the target, fearing it would be unpopular with voters concerned about migrant inflows. The anti-immigration UK Independence Party has started deliberately targeting disaffected white working-class Labour voters and made significant gains over Labour in local and European elections earlier this year.

But, addressing the fringe event, Ms Cooper explained that the net migration measure was problematic because it “treats all kinds of immigration as the same” when it’s “just not”.

“We should recognise the complexity and make sure you have a system which is far more sensible about the different kinds of immigration that we face and how it will work internationally, how it can be controlled and managed,” she said.

Despite promising in 2010 that the Tories would maintain net migration in the “tens of thousands”, David Cameron has struggled to reach this figure because it can be inflated by factors outside the government’s control, such as Britons emigrating or migrants arriving from EU countries. The latest statistics show net migration has reached a three-year high of 243,000, making it effectively impossible that the Tories will meet their pre-election pledge.

But businesses argue that the UK’s reputation as a global centre has been compromised by the Home Office’s cap on skilled migrants, designed to drive down migrant inflows. University vice-chancellors have also raised concerns that government efforts to cut down on abuse of student visas has created the impression that Britain no longer welcomes overseas students.

Julia Onslow-Cole, head of global immigration at PwC legal, welcomed Ms Cooper’s confirmation that Labour will abandon the Tory target.

“The Net Migration Target in its current form makes no sense – it is the driver to many of the unhelpful business immigration policies, which are simply aimed at reducing the overall immigration numbers,” Ms Onslow-Cole told the Financial Times. “A more nuanced approach with sector-based targets would be a huge step forward for business. This should be adopted by all parties.”

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