Theresa May faces being hauled before Parliament to publicly apologise for “bogus” statistics that wrongly claimed 100,000 students were overstaying their visas in the UK.
The demands for an apology came as Labour’s Diane Abbott warned that the Government could be defeated in a Commons vote to scrap the inclusion of international students in immigration figures.
Shock new figures released on Thursday showed that just 4,600 non-EU students - 2.6% of the total - were overstaying their visas and living in the UK illegally.
This contrasts with the 100,000 figure constantly used by May, prompting claims that the tiny number of ‘overstayers’ has exposed one of the biggest policy blunders of recent times.
May came under attack from all sides over the row, with former Chancellor George Osborne slating her for using “false information” to crack down on students from overseas and Boris Johnson refusing to endorse her policy.
Former civil servants also revealed that it was an open secret in Whitehall that the 100,000 figure had no evidence base but the Home Office refused to drop it.
Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, told HuffPost UK: “Including international students in the total immigration data and then subjecting them to the same irrational net migration target is completely counter-productive.
“They are not permanent residents and it has been proven that the majority return home after study. Furthermore they contribute billions to the British economy and significantly boost regional jobs and local businesses. It’s no surprise that senior members of the Prime Ministers cabinet disagree with her approach.
“Such is the support for international students amongst MPs, that if this was taken to a vote in the Commons, Theresa May might just lose.”
It is not clear which bill any amendment would be attached to, but MPs are determined to seize on any Home Office legislation to effect the change and take students out of the target to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’.
Harry Potter author JK Rowling tweeted that the massive statistical error could even have led Brexit voters into thinking immigration was far higher than it really was.
Osborne revealed that when May was Home Secretary she was “alone among ministers” in insisting there were 100,000 ‘overstayers’, even though “the figure was always considered highly suspect across Whitehall”.
Tory MPs should now force a Commons vote on removing international students from net migration figures, he added.
Home Affairs Committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper told HuffPost UK that the Prime Minister and the Government should show contrition and immediately remove foreign students from the Tory immigration target.
Cooper, who repeatedly pressed May on the issue when she was Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said an apology for the huge blunder should be made when Parliament reconvenes next month.
“The Prime Minister’s repeated claims about students overstaying their visa have turned out to be false,” she said.
“It shows even more reason why it is ludicrous to include international students in the Government’s net migration target. Ministers were warned repeatedly that their approach to international students was wrong and unjustified by the evidence. Yet they have persisted.
“The Government should apologise for getting this so badly wrong and immediately remove international students from their failed target.”
And Foreign Secretary Johnson failed to back May, despite being asked repeatedly in an interview if he agreed that the number of overseas students should be counted in net migration data.
Osborne used a leader article in the Evening Standard to declare that the Government’s policy had “damaged our economy, weakened our universities, reduced our exports and diminished our global impact”.
“Congratulations, Mrs May,” the editorial stated.
The ex-Chancellor also claimed that May had misrepresented Office for National Statistics figures on the gap between how many non-EU students were arriving in the UK and how many had left.
“Alone among senior Cabinet ministers at the time, Home Secretary Theresa May insisted that overseas students had to be included in Britain’s net migration numbers,” the editorial stated.
“Her reason was simple: around 100,000 of those students, she claimed, remained in the UK illegally once their visas expired. Based on a survey conducted at airports, the figure was always considered highly suspect across Whitehall.
“But repeated attempts by the Treasury, Foreign Office and Business department to get the Home Office to investigate the accuracy of the numbers were rebuffed — the then Home Secretary thought it was better to stick with false information than get the real facts, which might force her to change the policy.”
Osborne’s claims were backed up by a former Government official John McGee, who revealed on Twitter that he tried to get officials to challenge the 100,000 figure as it had no basis in exit checks.
Former Home Secretary Jack Straw also said May should come to Parliament next month to apologise and to explain herself.
Straw told Radio 5 Live: “It would be better [if she apologised.
“It’s not a resignation matter. I think that Theresa May owes the House of Commons and the country an explanation about how she made this huge policy area based on completely erroneous data.”
The Home Office has not produced public estimates for how many students overstayed their visas, but May had relied on the International Passenger Survey figures from the Office for National Statistics, which implied a gap between the number of arrivals and leavers of up to 100,000 per year.
Johnson refused to back the current policy of counting students in the net migration figures – a policy that has been heavily criticised by universities and business as a deterrent to global talent.
Asked on Radio 4′s Today programme if students should remain in the data, he refused three times to answer. “The Prime Minister rightly points out that that is the technical way that they are currently counted,” he finally said.
On Thursday, Johnson’s brother Jo, the universities minister, and Education Secretary Justine Greening both gave strong hints that they too wanted the current policy changed.
The Home Office paved the way for ditching the controversial practice by unveiling a review led by the Migration Advisory Committee.
Greening praised Home Secretary Amber Rudd for ordering the new report. “Sensible approach by @ukhomeoffice commissioning a full assessment of impact of #international students to the UK,” she tweeted.
Universities minister Johnson said: “Good news — Government to commission assessment of international students.”