Rishi Sunak’s plan to crack down on foreign student numbers risks sparking Cabinet battle
Rishi Sunak’s plan to respond to record levels of net migration with a potential crackdown on the number of foreign students coming to the UK risks sparking a Cabinet battle on multiple fronts, i has been told.
No 10 responded to figures yesterday showing net immigration reached a record half a million last year by promising to bring overall numbers down.
Downing Street also indicated the Prime Minister could back Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s proposals to clamp down on visas for foreign students’ dependents, for those taking “low-quality” degrees, and on student overstayers.
But i understands that the plans are still in their infancy, with insiders believing that Ms Braverman could face resistance from elsewhere in Whitehall before they could become a reality.
The Treasury is believed to have concerns that reducing immigration could harm growth, with the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt insisting last week that cutting the numbers could “harm the economy” if there were no long-term plan to raise the skills of British workers. The Office for Budget Responsibility had warned that lower immigration would hit growth and the public finances.
The Department for Education is expected to raise objections that a student visa crackdown could put the finances of some universities at risk, while the Foreign Office will want to ensure the plans do not risk the soft power benefits that international students bring to the UK.
Diplomats are meanwhile understood to be particularly nervous about an immigration crackdown after Ms Braverman singled out Indian immigrants last month as “the largest group of people who overstay” their visas, triggering a backlash from Delhi.
Downing Street’s vow came after the Office for National Statistics said net immigration to the UK rose to a record 504,000 in the year to June, driven by an increase in the number of non-EU nationals, with international students and refugees arriving on special schemes accounting for a large proportion of the increase.
Asylum system in ‘complete disarray’ with 140,000 waiting on their claims
The asylum system was described as being in “complete disarray” after official figures showed a record 140,000 people are waiting for a decision on their claims (Arj Singh writes).
Home Office figures for the year to September 2022 show there were 143,377 asylum applications which were yet to be determined, of which 97,717 had been waiting for over six months.
The asylum backlog was at least three times higher than during the same period in 2019, and around ten times higher than it was in 2013, leaving tens of thousands of people in limbo over whether they will be allowed to remain in the UK.
Separate figures show decisions have been made on just 139 (2 per cent) of applications from more than 35,000 migrants who crossed the Channel between October 2021 and August this year.
The vast majority (around 43,000) of the 63,000 who have arrived in small boats since 2018 are also still waiting for decisions.
The figures came after the Home Secretary set a target for caseworkers to make three decisions per week by May and an “ambition” to get to four.
The current rate of processing asylum claims is too low and the system is too slow, with caseworkers making just one decision a week on average, she told MPs.
Meanwhile, the Home Office is paying staff bonuses to stop them leaving in a bid to help cut the backlog, the department’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, said.
The department has around 1,000 asylum caseworkers but is hiring more. There are due to be around 1,500 by March, depending on staff turnover.
Responding to the latest figures, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, accused the Government of having “no proper grip or control” and the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Alistair Carmichael, claimed the Home Office was a “disaster zone” wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money every day.
The Institute for Public Policy Research said the asylum system was in “serious peril” while the British Red Cross said the backlog was rising at an “alarming rate”.
Amnesty International UK said the system was in “complete disarray” and urged Ms Braverman to “completely overhaul her disastrous asylum policy”.
Ministers must set up a “dedicated and well-resourced” taskforce to improve the processing of asylum claims, Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon said.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said on Thursday that the Government “will be looking at these figures and considering all options to make sure the immigration system is delivering”. He added: “That does include looking at the issue of student dependents and low-quality degrees.”
But i understands the policy response could depend on whether ministers agree with experts that the figures are a blip due to the end of the pandemic unleashing pent-up student demand and one-off special refugee schemes for Ukrainians, Afghans, HongKongers – or a wider trend of too-high immigration.
Ms Braverman said on Thursday the record figures were “understandable” as the UK welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong.
But she claimed “this level of migration has put pressure on accommodation and housing supply, health, education and other public services”, adding: “The public rightly expect us to control our borders and we remain committed to reducing migration over time in line with our manifesto commitment.
“We must ensure we have a sustainable, balanced and controlled approach which is why we continue to keep our immigration policies under review.”
A source close to Ms Braverman said: “The Home Secretary is working very closely with the Prime Minister on this issue and they are both on the same page when it comes to their shared aim to see overall migration numbers into the UK come down.”
Mr Hunt will have a say on ensuring the level and type of immigration meets the UK’s economic needs. A Treasury source said: “The Chancellor will back whatever the PM wants.”
Tory MPs meanwhile clashed over the figures, with rightwinger Marco Longhi echoing Ms Braverman’s concerns that the figures were unsustainable, while the former immigration minister Kevin Foster defended the immigration levels in an argument with Theresa May’s chief of staff Nick Timothy on Twitter, insisting much of the increase was down to refugee schemes.
The Russell Group of elite universities told i that high numbers of foreign students “should be seen as a UK success story”, insisting they would be “critical to meeting the Government’s export strategy to increase education exports to £35bn by 2030” and highlighting official figures showing that those on study visas are 97.5 per cent compliant in leaving when their visas expire.