The Labor Party has accused the government of “breaking promises” on migration as official figures are expected to confirm that numbers have increased.
Sir Keir Starmer kicked off Prime Minister’s Questions by asking how many work visas were issued to foreign nationals last year – a question Rishi Sunak dodged.
The Labor leader said the number stood at a quarter of a million in 2022, and that figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) due to be released tomorrow “are expected to be even higher”.
Labor attacks on Braverman – politics latest
Speaking in the Commons, the Labor leader said: “The prime minister stood on three Tory manifestos, each one promised to reduce immigration. Each promise broken.”
Mr Sunak is battling discontent on the Tory backbenches over the ONS figures, which are expected to show that net migration has increased from 504,000 last year to more than 700,000 in the year to December 2022.
He also faced MPs in the Commons just hours after he decided not to investigate Home Secretary Suella Braverman over allegations she asked civil servants to arrange a private awareness course after she was caught speeding last year in what critics believe amounts to a breach of the ministerial code.
On Monday Ms Braverman announced new curbs on international students bringing family members to the UK in a bid to lower the numbers.
But Sir Keir said the reason the government had to issue so many visas was because of “Labour and skills shortages”.
“The reasons there are shortages is the low-wage Tory economy.”
And referring to the row that has engulfed Ms Braverman over her speeding offence, he asked: “Why does he think his home secretary has such an issue dealing with points based systems?”
The package announced on Tuesday will mean that international students will no longer be able to bring dependents with them unless they are on postgraduate courses that are currently designated as research programmes.
It will also remove the ability for international students to switch out of the student route and into work routes before their studies have been completed “to prevent misuse of the visa system”, the government said.
As well as removing this right, there will also be a review of the maintenance requirement for students and dependents and a crackdown on “unscrupulous” education agents “who make use of inappropriate applications to sell immigration, not education”.
The changes will come into effect for students starting their courses from January 2024 in order to allow future international students time to plan ahead.
Ms Braverman said she was making the changes following an “unexpected rise” in the number of dependants coming to the UK alongside international students.
In the year ending December 2022, 486,000 student visas were issued to applicants – up from 269,000 in 2019.
Last year, the number of student visas issued to dependents stood at 136,000 – an eightfold increase from 2019, when 16,000 were provided.
Defending the government’s approach, the prime minister said Labor would like to see “even more people” coming to the UK.
“While we are getting on with clamping down on legal migration… he is perfectly comfortable saying he wants free movement back,” he said.
Braverman’s letter to PM – and Sunak’s response, in full
The history of net migration turmoil since Cameron’s ‘tens of thousands’ pledge
“Just this week we announced the biggest single measure to tackle legal migration, removing the right for international students to bring dependents, toughening the rules on post-study work, and reviewing maintenance requirements.
“But what is (Sir Keir’s) contribution? There are absolutely no ideas… absolutely no semblance that there would be any control. Why? Because he believes in an open-door migration policy.”
In his letter to the home secretary, the prime minister said he had consulted with his independent ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, who advised that “on this occasion further investigation is not necessary” and that he had “accepted that advice”.
Mr Sunak said that after receiving a letter from Ms Braverman – in which she apologized for causing “distraction” – “my decision is that these matters do not amount to a breach of the ministerial code”.
However, acknowledging the row that ensued following the reports, he added: “As you have recognized, a better course of action could have been taken to avoid giving rise to the perception of impropriety.”
Mr Sunak immediately came under criticism for his decision, which the Liberal Democrats branded a “cowardly cop-out”.
Click to subscribe to the Sky News Daily wherever you get your podcasts
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said that “with every scandal, we see the prime minister dither, delay and flip-flop – never taking decisive action.”
“This is not the leadership the country needs during such a severe cost of living crisis. Sunak is too weak to even order an investigation, let alone sack his home secretary,” she said.