Conservatives 'won't ditch' migration target

Grant Shapps says a pledge to reduce net migration is "for the end of parliament"

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Senior Conservatives have insisted they can still reduce overall levels of net migration despite calls from backbenchers to rethink their approach.

Former minister Liam Fox told the Sunday Telegraph the party's target of cutting net migration to below 100,000 by 2015 was "statistical nonsense".

He called for a "clearer narrative", based on curbing low-skilled labour.

But party chairman Grant Shapps said non-EU migration was at its lowest since 1998 and the target could be met.

The latest figures show net annual migration - the difference between the number of people leaving the country and those settling - rose by 58,000 to 212,000 in the year to September 2013.

In opposition, David Cameron said the Tories would reduce the figure from a peak of about 250,000 under the previous Labour government to the "tens of thousands".

Although levels steadily declined in 2012 after tighter restrictions on non-EU migrants took effect, the trend has since reversed - largely due to the increase in the number of migrants from other EU countries.

'Positive vision'

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Fox - a former defence secretary - said it was time to abandon the target - which is not government policy due to the opposition of the Lib Dems.

"There needs to be a clearer narrative on immigration, stressing not only the need to restrict numbers, but also to determine which individuals, with what skills, enter our country," he said.

Start Quote

We cannot have any control over who comes to Britain while we are members of the EU. It is as simple as that”

End Quote Nigel Farage

"While Conservative policy has concentrated on getting down the net migration numbers it is actual numbers that affect school places, housing and health. The Conservatives must ditch this statistical nonsense."

Rather than trying to control overall levels, he said the Conservatives must focus on getting the "right kind of migration" for the needs of a growing economy.

Mr Fox also warned the party against a "dangerous complacency" over the appeal of UKIP, which argues that the only way to control immigration from the EU is to leave the union.

He said UKIP drew most of its support from former Conservative voters and the party should "set out a positive vision, clear philosophy, and definable objectives" rather than trying to outflank UKIP on the right.

"Many decent and patriotic people in this country have been willing to consider flirting with UKIP. We should not insult their motivations by denigrating their voting choice," he said.

'Pull factors'

But Mr Shapps told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that there was "still time" for the net migration target to be fulfilled.

"The pledge is for the end of the Parliament - we are only part way through," he said. "That is still our goal - to bring the numbers down."

Rather than Eastern Europe, he suggested that the UK was now seeing increased migration from Italy and Spain.

He defended the government's efforts to address the so-called "pull factors" attracting people to the UK such as access to benefits and other public services.

He added: "Those figures mask the fact that we have immigration from outside the EU - the bit we can most control - down to the lowest level since 1998. This is a big improvement."

But UKIP leader Nigel Farage said the UK had no real control over either the number or the type of migrants that were settling from elsewhere in the EU.

"The British public now understand that it is utterly meaningless to set targets of tens of thousands a year or whatever you choose," he said.

"We cannot have any control over who comes to Britain while we are members of the EU. It is as simple as that."

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