The Tories would aim to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2022, PM Theresa May has signalled.
The controversial target, which in the Conservative manifesto does not include a timeframe, has not been met since it was first made by the party in 2009.
But minister Brandon Lewis told the BBC the aim was to do so “over the course of the next parliament”.
And, asked about the comments later in the day, Mrs May said: “That’s what we’re working for.”
The pledge to reduce net annual migration – the difference in the number of people coming to the UK for a year or more and those leaving – to the tens of thousands was in the 2010 and 2015 Tory manifestos.
Neither Mrs May or her predecessor as prime minister, David Cameron, has come close to meeting that target. The most recent figure was 273,000. The last year it was below 100,000 was 1997.
Despite this, the target has been retained in the 2017 manifesto, which states the party will deliver “controlled, sustainable migration” but does not set a timeframe.
Policing Minister Mr Lewis was asked about the pledge on the BBC’s Daily Politics on Thursday, and said: “We want to see migration levels come down to sustainable levels, which we think is tens of thousands, over the course of the next parliament.”
Mrs May was asked to confirm the comments later, while campaigning in Yorkshire. She replied: “That’s what we’re working for.
“We’re working to bring immigration down to the tens of thousands, but having been there as home secretary for six years, this isn’t something that you can just produce the magic bullet that suddenly does everything – what you have to do is keep working at it.”
However, when the issue was raised on BBC One’s Question Time on Thursday evening, Brexit Secretary David Davis said that was “the aim, but we can’t promise within five years”.
Mr Davis said: “We would like to do it in the Parliament but I think it will be dictated by a number of things: The economy, the speed with which we can get our own people trained up, to take the jobs, the changes in the welfare to encourage people to work… A whole series of things designed to ensure that this is an economically successful policy.”
Asked again if the aim was to do so within five years, he replied: “The aim yes, but we can’t promise within five years.”
Labour’s Barry Gardiner, who was also on the programme, asked Mr Davis: “You’ve had the target for seven years, you are now saying it is not going to be fulfilled for the next five years, when will it be fulfilled?”
Business groups have raised concerns about the target – the CBI’s director general has accused the Conservatives of a “blunt approach to immigration” which risked hobbling UK firms trying to attract overseas talent.
And former Conservative chancellor George Osborne – who was fired by Mrs May when she became prime minister and is now editor of London’s Evening Standard – used an editorial in his newspaper to say ministers “haven’t a clue” about how they would meet it.
In its election manifesto, Labour said it was offering “fair rules and reasonable management of migration” – but dismissed targets as “bogus”.
Ministers say the decision to leave the EU, which will bring an end to current free movement rules, will enable the UK to exert full control over its borders.
But they have stopped short of guaranteeing this will lead to a fall in migration from the EU.
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