Immigration is at its highest level since 2005, according to damning new statistics which are set to take centre stage in the Conservatives' battle with the eurosceptic Ukip in the final weeks leading up to the general election.
The figures mean that the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, who pledged to slash net migration to below 100,000 by the election, have officially failed to fulfill that pledge.
There was a net flow of 298,000 long-term migrants to the UK in the year ending September, a "statistically significant increase" from 210,000 in the previous year, the Office for National Statistics said in the final estimate of net migration before the general election on May 7.
In April 2011, David Cameron pledged:
“I believe that will mean net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year, not the hundreds of thousands every year that we have seen over the last decade. Britain will always be open to the best and brightest from around the world and those fleeing persecution.
"But with us, our borders will be under control and immigration will be at levels our country can manage.
"No ifs. No buts.
"That’s a promise we made to the British people, and it’s a promise we are keeping.”
Last year, Theresa May said the speech made a "comment" not a "pledge" to bring the numbers below 100,000.
The new figures show:
- Net long-term migration to the UK was estimated to be 298,000 in the year ending September 2014, a statistically significant increase from 210,000 in the previous 12 months, but below the peak of 320,000 in the year ending June 2005.
- 624,000 people immigrated to the UK in the year ending September 2014, a statistically significant increase from 530,000 in the previous 12 months.
- There were statistically significant increases for immigration of non-EU citizens, up 49,000 to 292,000, and EU citizens, up 43,000 to 251,000.
- An estimated 327,000 people emigrated from the UK in the year ending September 2014. Overall emigration levels have been relatively stable since 2010.
- 37,000 Romanian and Bulgarian citizens immigrated to the UK in the year ending September 2014, a statistically significant increase from 24,000 in the previous 12 months.
Prime Minister David Cameron watches security monitors as he talks to UK border agency officials
Migrant rights groups have cautioned against immigrants being used as a political football as election rhetoric ramps up. “The latest migration figures reflect Britain’s growing economy and should not be used by the political parties as a launch-pad for their negative political campaigns shifting the blame for wider problems onto migrants.” says Migrants' Rights Network Director, Don Flynn.
“What these numbers show that Britain is more than ever an outward-facing, globalised country with a diverse and hardworking population from overseas. However, we fear that the political debate ahead of the general election will fail to reflect that contemporary reality in any meaningful way.”
“One myth which we’ve seen gain traction in the last few years - that ‘foreigners are taking all the new jobs’ - was undermined by last week’s ONS figures. This data showed that the number of British workers in employment increased by 375,000 last year – over 130,000 more than the number of non-UK nationals in work,” he added.
Today's ONS figures come as a Press Association survey showing the public perception of levels of immigration does not match the reality - with more than half wrongly believing the total percentage of foreign-born residents in the UK is 20% or higher. 11% thought it was 40% or higher. The actual figure is around 12%.
The majority of respondents - 60% - wrongly thought the largest number of migrants to the UK arrive from within the EU, with 40% believing most migrants come from outside the EU.
The survey also revealed that one in three people believes none of the top seven political parties have appropriate policies to deal with immigration.
A third of respondents dismissed the main parties' approaches, with Ukip getting the most support at 30%. Elsewhere, 12% backed Tory policies, 13% supported Labour and 4% backed the Liberal Democrats, while 4% supported the Green Party, 3% the SNP and 1% Plaid Cymru.
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: "The finding that the largest groups support either Ukip or the 'no/other party' option to manage migration show the extent to which the main parties have struggled to put forward a narrative on migration that appeals to large numbers of the public.
"It is no great surprise that there is concern about the impacts of immigration on welfare and employment, but the findings show that people also think about a wide range of other issues relating to migration and its impacts, and think differently about the local and national picture."
Steven Woolfe MEP, the Ukip migration spokesman said: "Despite attempts by the political establishment to close down debate on this issue during the election, it is clear that two thirds of the country are concerned about the level of inward migration.
"The fact is that a simple points-based Australian system, where people are treated equally and fairly and where this country decides who can come to the country, is what this country is crying out for".