Sunak refuses to comment on proposal to cut the number of dependents of foreign workers

Rishi Sunak has conceded that net migration levels are “too high” after one of his senior ministers said it was “unacceptable” that there were a record number of arrivals last year.

The Prime Minister (pictured) would not comment on suggestions that immigration minister Robert Jenrick, one of Mr Sunak’s close allies, has drawn up a five-point plan — said to propose cutting the number of dependents foreign workers can bring with them — to tackle the influx of people legally entering Britain.

Net migration into the UK peaked at 745,000 in the year to December 2022, which is a record high according to revised estimates published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Thursday.

The data places migration levels at three times higher than before Brexit, despite a Conservative Party 2019 manifesto pledge to bring overall numbers down.

Many MPs on the right of the party, including sacked home secretary Suella Braverman, have called on Mr Sunak to honour that commitment.

The Prime Minister, in an interview with broadcasters on Friday, declined to comment when asked whether he would apologise for not meeting the manifesto pledge.

Speaking during a visit to car manufacturer Nissan in Sunderland, Mr Sunak said: “I’m very clear that the levels of migration are too high and they’ve got to come down to more sustainable levels.”

He pointed to the ONS recording that migration was “slowing” but said he recognised “we’ve got more to go” to bring down the number of entrants.

Other data released by the statistics body this week indicated that net migration for 2023, up until June, stood at 672,000.

The figures would suggest that, in total, 1.279 million more people have come to the UK than have exited the country during the past two years.

Mrs Braverman called the record numbers “a slap in the face to the British public”.

Leave campaigners at the 2016 referendum said exiting the European Union would allow ministers to better control the UK’s borders.

Mr Sunak — who campaigned for Brexit — said his administration had already taken action this year by “clamping down on the number of dependents” that international students could bring with them to the UK.

“That action I took represents the single toughest measure that anyone has taken to bring down the levels of legal migration in a very long time,” he added.

“So that should give people a sense of my commitment to bringing migration down.

“And if we see further abuse of the system, of course we’re prepared to act to do more.”

Former home secretary Dame Priti Patel pushed back against the notion that the system was being exploited.

“On the points-based system, there are very, very clear parameters as to how people come to our country,” she told TalkTV, pointing to employer-led schemes.

“We can’t just assume that people are coming here and there’s lots of free-riding taking place.”

Mr Sunak’s comments came after Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride told Times Radio the current numbers were “unacceptable”.

Mr Stride suggested that reforms to the welfare system and tax cuts in the autumn statement could lead to a reduction in net migration, arguing it could encourage Britons into the labour market and avoid the need to fill job vacancies with foreign workers.

According to reports, other Cabinet ministers are keen to see a crackdown on visas for foreign workers relocating to the United Kingdom to work for the NHS or in the care sector.

Home Office minister Mr Jenrick is understood to have worked up a plan designed to appease calls from right-wing Tories for the Government to take action.

Mr Jenrick is pushing for a ban on foreign social care workers from bringing in any dependents and a cap on the total number of NHS and social care visas, the PA news agency understands.

His plan would also see the shortage occupation list scrapped, a programme that allows foreign workers to be paid 20% below the going rate in roles that suffer from a shortage of skilled workers.

Downing Street refused to say what Mr Sunak makes of Mr Jenrick’s proposals when asked by journalists, insisting it would not be getting into “running commentary on policy development.”

It said discussions between departments and No 10 are “routine”.

The Government’s migration advisory committee has already recommended the nixing of the shortage occupation list amid fears it was being used to bring cheap foreign labour into the UK.

Labour accused the Tories of a “huge failure” to control migration.

Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds told Times Radio that social care visas had risen by 156% due to ministers not putting in place higher pay arrangements or creating better career development prospects for those employed in the sector.

Asked about Mr Jenrick’s migration-cutting plan, Ms Dodds said it was “quite extraordinary” for such policy ideas to only be brought forward 13 years into Tory rule.

“If we were talking about a proper plan, actually getting a grip rather than gimmicks, then we would be in a different situation,” she said.

Net migration is separate from Mr Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” which is about preventing asylum seekers entering Britain via unauthorised routes.

Dame Priti criticised his handling of illegal immigration, saying: “I don’t think the Government has handled that particularly well.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2023, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Yui Mok / PA.