Author: Joe Watts
Theresa May has clashed with her home secretary over targets to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”, as the cabinet row over Britain’s post-Brexit borders spilled into public.
Sajid Javid confirmed his new immigration plan would not include the numerical target championed by the prime minister during her time at the Home Office.
But just hours later in the House of Commons, Ms May was asked if hitting the target remained her intention to which she replied: “Yes.”
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It follows a dispute behind closed doors over how the new immigration plans should be framed, with Downing Street determined to present them as a crackdown on low-skilled workers from overseas.
The Independent – which has run the Drop the Target campaign for over two years – first revealed the shift away from the target earlier this week, with Mr Javid confirming its absence from his white paper on Wednesday.
As officials prepared to publish the full immigration bill to be put before parliament, it also emerged that key details of the new policy – including the salary threshold for migrants – will not be known until 2020, with cabinet infighting said to be at the root of the delay.
During an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Mr Javid said his white paper set out plans to reduce immigration to “sustainable” levels but did not include a “specific target”.
He repeatedly declined to restate the commitment – first made by David Cameron in the 2010 Tory manifesto – to lower annual net migration down below 100,000.
He said: “There is no specific target. It will be a system that will bring net migration down to more sustainable levels.
“If you look at the current level of migration, the latest stats show 273,000. Most people agree that is very high, certainly by historical standards. In the last two decades it has been in the hundreds of thousands. If you go back further than that, it was much lower.
“What we want to do is bring it to a level where it is sustainable in the sense that it meets first our economic need and at the same time it is not too high, a burden on our communities or on our infrastructure.”
Mr Javid has also been reticent to repeat the target in previous interviews and had signalled an intent in the Commons to move away from the “hostile environment” policies Ms May promoted while doing his job.
Ms May has strongly resisted pressure to abandon the target from senior ministers over many years, including from George Osbornewhen he was chancellor.
But as news of the target’s absence from the white paper spread, Ms May was asked by Labour MP Chris Elmore whether it was still the government’s intention to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands, and replied that it was.
Downing Street pointed out that the target was still a manifesto commitment, and also highlighted a section of the white paper which referenced the manifesto, though it still made no specific mention of the “tens of thousands” target.
The white paper had also been due to set out the minimum salary requirement for workers to obtain a long-term visa – which had been expected to be set at £30,000.
But after a revolt led by Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and Greg Clark, the business secretary, no figure will be announced until 2020 – just months before the post-Brexit immigration system is due to start in January 2021.
An “extensive 12-month programme of engagement” is planned with businesses, the NHS and local government leaders.
Ms May also dismissed suggestions she had been forced by the cabinet to backtrack over the £30,000 minimum salary threshold for higher skilled workers applying for five-year visas.
The figure was originally recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee, but the white paper said there would be further consultations before it was finalised.