Rishi Sunak has refused to say what number of legal migrants would be “acceptable”, as ministers signalled that they would put the needs of the economy ahead of a Conservative manifesto commitment to cut overall numbers.

The UK prime minister is braced for heavy criticism next Thursday when net migration figures are expected to hit a record, with experts predicting the total for last year could top 700,000.

But Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, chancellor, have made it clear this week that they are prepared to take political and media criticism in the interests of economic growth and filling gaps in the labour market.

Sunak, on a visit to Japan, agreed on Friday that legal migration to Britain was “too high” but refused to say what number he was targeting or when he would start to bring down the level.

The issue will come to a head when the Office for National Statistics publishes migration estimates for the whole of 2022. The Tories fought the 2019 election promising to cut net migration, which then stood at 226,000.

Asked by the BBC what would be an “acceptable level”, Sunak said: “I don’t want to put a precise number on it.” He said it would “depend on how the economy’s doing at any particular time and the circumstances we’re facing”.

Since Brexit, when Britain “took back control” of its migration policy, net migration from the EU has fallen away but has been replaced by a large influx from non-EU countries, including refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan and people fleeing the civil rights crackdown in Hong Kong.

But ministers have also made a deliberate choice to increase migration, including through a 2019 commitment to increase the number of enrolled international students from 470,000 in 2017/18 to 600,000 by 2030.

That number has already been exceeded and Gillian Keegan, education secretary, and Hunt have repelled attempts by Suella Braverman, home secretary, to cut it.

“The 600,000 figure is a target, not a ceiling,” said one ally of Keegan. The education secretary has repeatedly said the international students are good for the economy, research and for boosting Britain’s “soft power”.

Keegan has agreed, however, to a ban on postgraduate students on one-year courses bringing dependants with them to the UK during their studies.

Meanwhile, Braverman agreed this year to a proposal to let more foreign construction workers come to Britain to fill gaps in the labour market under the so-called “shortage occupation” scheme.

The government’s Migration Advisory Committee is holding a review to see whether other sectors — such as retail or hospitality — should be added to the list and will report in the autumn.

Hunt, speaking at the British Chambers of Commerce conference this week indicated he would be willing to see the list expanded.

“Since we left the single market we have been pragmatic when it comes to immigration requirements,” he said. “So for example, we put care homes on the shortage occupation list, some construction industry sectors, and we will keep talking to all of you about where there are short-term challenges.”

Hunt argues that his spring Budget was dedicated to bringing the long-term sick, parents and older workers back into the British workforce, but labour market shortages are likely to persist.

The tensions in government over the issue were highlighted this week when Braverman said Britain should be a “high-skilled, high wage economy” but should also train its own fruit pickers.

But in the same week Sunak told a gathering of farmers at Downing Street that an extra 10,000 visas would be made available for the agriculture sector — on top of the 45,000 already allocated.

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