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David Cameron suggested it would be difficult for the Tories to meet a key immigration target yesterday as he rejected suggestions his Government is losing its grip after a series of U-turns.

The Prime Minister insisted tough measures to limit the number of incomers would continue – but pointed out that fewer Britons were leaving for foreign climes.

Before the election, the Conservatives said they aimed to cut net migration from around 250,000 a year under Labour to the ‘tens of thousands’.

But the latest figures showed that 182,000 more people came to Britain than left in the year to June, up from 167,000 in the year before.

Mr Cameron dismissed the idea that the target was ‘impossible’ to meet because fewer Britons are now emigrating to the struggling Eurozone.

‘I don’t accept that,’ the Prime Minister said. ‘If you take the whole three year period [since the election], net immigration is down by a around third.

But he said: ‘The action we have taken takes some time to come through – getting rid of bogus colleges, trying to make sure that people who don’t have a right to stay here leave, making sure that family reunion really is just that. 

‘A lot of these things take an amount of time to be dealt with.’ 

But he went on to point out that when the Tories set the goal of reducing net migration to tens of thousands a year – one which has never been accepted by the Liberal Democrats – at a time when emigration was helping to balance our immigration.

‘I made the pledge of trying to get net migration down to the tens of thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands, on the basis that actually over the previous period migration flows within Europe have been relatively balancing out when it’s been migration from outside Europe that’s been topping up the numbers. 

‘We have seen that migration from outside Europe come down in terms of net figures and we need to make further progress.

‘So I’ll keep going on this. It’s very important. The British public want firm and consistent action on immigration and that’s exactly what they’re getting from me.’

Only last week it emerged net migration had risen for the second consecutive quarter to 182,000 – mostly with people fleeing eurozone countries in sourthern Europe. 

But the largest group of migrants came from China – in the form of students. About 40,000 arrived in the 12 months to June, 8.7 per cent of the total, and means China has overtaken India as the leading source of immigrants.

However officials pointed out that the majority did leave again at the end of the courses.

The Prime Minister insisted the coalition was still working well – pointing to the weekend deal on slashing green levies to bring down energy bills by around £50 a year.

He said the coalition parties had also reached ‘good agreements on immigration’ but claimed the Lib Dems were a restraint on tougher measures. He added: ‘Would I like to go further? Yes I would.’ 

Mr Cameron said he was not concerned about the perception that the Government was being buffeted by events, having made U-turns on issues including capping interest rates on payday loans and plain cigarette packaging, and responded to Labour’s promise of an energy price freeze with action to cut bills.

‘On payday lending, this is the first government that has actually regulated properly this industry. We got in, we weren’t happy with what we saw, we set up the Financial Conduct Authority, properly regulating payday loans.

‘But I think it’s right, you look at the evidence, listened to the arguments and I think it’s time for an interest rate cap.

‘On energy prices, if you can cut household energy bills by rolling back on the cost of levies then it makes sense to do so.

‘This is something I announced I would do in the House of Commons and a month later we have done it. That’s good politics. You say you’re going to do something, you work hard to achieve it, and then you do it.’ 

On the move towards plain cigarette packets, which comes months after the Government shelved the idea, the Prime Minister said: ‘You look at the evidence, look at what’s happening overseas, look at the evidence of what works, and take the appropriate course.

‘If you look at the big picture of this Government, that has taken incredible difficult long-term decisions to turn the economy round, decisions we can now see are paying off as our economy is growing, unemployment is falling, there are 400,000 new businesses are operating, the world is beginning to see that the British economy is one of the most open, exciting and dynamic in the world.

‘Listen to businesses… their sense of momentum in the British economy. This is a government that has a long-term plan to turn the country round.

‘So whereas obviously in the bubble people can get obsessed by this decision or that decision, the big picture about this Government is that it has taken difficult decisions, it has stuck to them and it’s really beginning to deliver for the British economy.’

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