It has become a truism now to say that the vote to leave the European Union last year was because of a desire for lower immigration. But it is also true that the vast majority of the British people - Leavers and Remainers - want EU nationals already living in Britain to stay here, to have their rights protected, and to continue to contribute to our country. That is why the new immigration figures released this morning are so concerning.
The top line of the new figures will probably be that annual net migration in the last year was 246,000; a substantial fall, though still far, far away from the Government's target of bringing it below 100,000. But buried in the report was a truly concerning statistic - that the numbers of EU citizens emigrating from Britain has risen sharply, by 33,000. The Office for National Statistics themselves say this increase is statistically significant.
This truly worrying statistic is symptomatic of the failings of this Government. Their obsession with draconian cuts in immigration is sending a signal to many people already living in Britain that they are no longer wanted. This unwelcoming attitude was summed up yesterday, when it emerged that the Home Office has sent letters to up to a hundred EU citizens, with an absolute right to live in Britain, threatening them with deportation. One of the things that makes Britain great is our tolerance and our openness to the rest of the world, and I fear that this Government's attitude is putting that at risk.
If this Brexodus of EU citizens continues, all of us will be made worse off. Our public services need the work done by EU citizens, with more than 60,000 of them working in our National Health Service alone. Higher education is dependent on international students, who support over 200,000 jobs in university towns and cities the length and breadth of Britain. And for the sake of our public finances, EU citizens - who are generally young, working, and not in need of state assistance - are a huge boon. Researchers at UCL found that they are worth £20bn to the public finances. Think how much worse the deficit would become if too many of them just up and leave.
Urgent action needs to be taken to prevent the flow of EU citizens leaving Britain from turning into a flood once we leave the EU. First, symbols matter. There must no longer be any talk of deportation letters, 'go home vans', and the rest of this Government's unnecessary anti-immigration apparatus. But policy matters too. A good place to start would be for the Government to drop its damaging and unachievable target of cutting annual net migration to the tens of thousands, as Open Britain has been campaigning for for months. With the current figure running at more than twice this level, Ministers would need to reduce migration by a staggering 146,000 to hit their cap. Nobody believes this can be hit, and the damage that would be done to our economy if it was achieved wouldn't bear thinking about.
We need an immigration system that works for our economy, public services and universities; for EU citizens who have made their lives here; and also for the millions of people who voted Leave in the hope of more control over migration. We do need reform. Current EU rules allow us to remove people with no prospect of supporting themselves from this country after a few months. We can learn from other EU countries in finding ways to link public services more closely to contribution. And we should crack down hard on unscrupulous employers who seek to recruit exclusively from the EU when there are British people who would want to apply for available jobs. But all of these remedies are achievable within the Single Market. Ministers should not be pulling out of the world's biggest trading bloc. Instead, imaginative diplomacy should be able to square the circle of protecting our economy and delivering a fairer immigration system.
This Government's divisive rhetoric and hard Brexit strategy are driving the Brexodus of EU nationals. They urgently need to change course to deliver an immigration system that works for the whole of Britain, not just the dreams of right-wing Brextremists.