Net migration to Britain reached 318,000 in 2014, its highest level since 2005, official data showed on Thursday, a political setback for Prime Minister David Cameron who has pledged to reduce the figure to less than 100,000 annually.
The data comes hours before Cameron unveils new laws to deter migrants from coming to Britain, and a day before he meets other European leaders to tentatively set out plans for a renegotiation of the country’s ties with the EU.
“The truth is it has been too easy to work illegally and employ illegal workers here,” Cameron will say, according to extracts of his speech released in advance by his Downing Street office. “So we’ll take a radical step — we’ll make illegal working a criminal offence in its own right.”
That would mean that wages paid to people in Britain illegally could be seized by police as “proceeds of crime”, closing a legal loophole, and that businesses will be informed when their workers’ visas expire.
Cameron has pledged to win reforms in Europe, including changes to how easily EU migrants can access his country’s welfare system, before giving Britons an in-out EU membership referendum before the end of 2017.
The Office for National Statistics data showed a net 318,000 people moved to Britain in 2014, against 209,000 in 2013. It called the rise “a statistically significant increase,” saying it was just below a previous peak of 320,000 in 2005.
Since Cameron promised in 2010 to get net migration down to the ‘tens of thousands’ – an acknowledgement of public concern about the impact of rising immigration – the regular data release has been seized upon by political rivals as a reminder of the difficulty of controlling migration from the EU.
Britain’s economy, which is performing better than most of the EU, has made the country an increasingly appealing destination for those seeking work.
Critics have questioned whether Cameron’s welfare changes would really help to reduce the influx of workers.
He pointed to the fact that 86,000 EU citizens last year arrived without a job offer to look for work, with the implication that some were drawn by unemployment benefits.
The prime minister’s proposals to clamp down on illegal immigration are also unlikely to affect the official statistics, although they may prove popular.
His proposals include making all banks check their accounts against databases of people in the country illegally, and satellite tracking tags for foreign criminals awaiting deportation.
However the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants Britain to leave the EU to drastically curb immigration, said the proposals were a “smokescreen to mask today’s appalling immigration statistics”.
“We can’t control our borders if 400 million people have an automatic legal right to come here. And that’s the fundamental issue, and everything else is designed to distract us from that,” said UKIP MP Douglas Carswell.