Public want immigration control, not a cap

A poll for Migration Watch shows public support for a cap on net immigration. But a cap wouldn't work and deeper analysis shows the public want control not a cap.

An opinion poll conducted for Migration Watch in marginal seats has, according to the Times, shown that “David Cameron could clinch a general election victory by placing a cap of 50,000 on net immigration.”

Migration Watch must be delighted with the uncritical coverage of their poll, which is part of their campaign to convince the parties to include a pledge to cap immigration in their manifestos.

Politicians from all parties may find a cap on net immigration a tempting suggestion – a quick way to demonstrate that they are responding to public concerns. The public concerns are real enough – polling consistently shows that people in the UK are worried about immigration. In response, it’s tempting for politicians to talk tough and announce yet another tightening of the immigration system.  But a promise to cap immigration won’t help, for at least two reasons.

First, a cap on net immigration of 50,000 (or zero, which is what the Cross Party Group on Balanced Migration, who were making the headlines last week, would prefer) would be next to impossible to deliver. Short of withdrawing from the EU, migration within the EU is outside government control, and the UK also has obligations to meet with respect to refugees and human rights that aren’t easily susceptible to numerical caps. Even in categories that can be limited, it’s hard to imagine the government telling Arsenal that they can’t sign another promising young player from outside the UK because this year’s immigration cap has been reached, or allowing vacancy rates in hospitals and care homes to rise further because the flows of foreign nurses have been stopped.

Secondly, and perhaps less intuitively, promising to cap immigration at a much lower level would be a political own goal, for any party. It would be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the public wants. New research from ippr has looked in detail at the views of those who are worried about migration. This research found that, when they are given the space to discuss the issues in detail, self-declared migration sceptics often have nuanced and moderate views on the issue. They are concerned about the scale of recent immigration, but they can also see the benefits of migration for the UK – they respect the hard work of migrants, and the contribution they make (for example to the NHS).

Crucially, people want the government to be in control of migration.  But control does not mean a drastic limit on net migration – it’s perfectly possible for the government to be in control of a migration system that is flexible and responsive to the needs of the economy.  In fact, what often gives the public the impression that migration is out of control is politicians making promises to ‘clamp down’ on immigration that they then cannot deliver.  It might be tempting to promise a cap on immigration, but it isn’t necessarily what the public wants, and risks becoming a hostage to fortune.

The Government need to resist pressure from Migration Watch and others, and stand up for the systems that they have put in place; demonstrating that they are in control by being confident about their policies, not by constantly changing them in response to the vocal migration lobby groups.

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12 Responses to “Public want immigration control, not a cap”

  1. Gareth Wyn Abbit

    RT @leftfootfwd: The public want immigration control, not a cap, argues ippr's Sarah Mulley http://bit.ly/6oPHnr

  2. Anon E Mouse

    Sarah – I don’t really care about the numbers but to state that something is “next to impossible” just means there is no political will to deliver it. We happen to live on an island for goodness sake – the only reason immigration is this high is because it is allowed to be.

    I won’t be voting Tory at the next election but let me assure you that outside of the London Village a lot of people will vote for just this measure.

    I don’t care what the biased left wing (it would say that wouldn’t it)IPPR says, the fact the BNP now have two MEP’s and there are councillors from that party in our country shows they are simply wrong.

    If Cameron actually states in a manifesto he will fix numbers coming into our country at 50,000 / year (I don’t think he will) Labour can stand by for an even bigger rout than most (sensible & realistic) people know they’re going to get.

    And deservedly so…

  3. Joe

    Sigh… people actually dim enough to be that concerned about immigration vote Tory (or worse) regardless. All the crap Hague and Howard threw at asylum seekers hardly helped the Tories did it?

    The BNP may have two MEP’s, but actually received fewer votes when compared with 2004; they managed it on a depressed turnout in the direct aftermath of the expenses scandal. Compared to ‘hated’ Europe, the far right in England is still tiny and marginalised.

    Slightly amused by the idea of a ‘London village’… I can assure you that the North is more lefty than the south and that your grumpy right-wing little-Englander views are just that of a loud, vocal and irritating minority.

  4. al_j

    I admire Joe’s equanimity in the face of the BNP’s recent unprecedented poll victories and the fact that they now represent us in the European Parliament, but I don’t share it with him.

    I also find the argument in the post disingenuous at best. While it’s easy to find problems with a simple cap, the people who do so are strangely reticent about the problems with a points system. There’s not even a fundamental difference between a system in which you use immigration control to fill skills shortages (which the author seems to advocate – though better not ask how we measure them) and one with a time-varying cap. The big advantage of a cap over a points system, the detail of which only a few civil servants (hopefully) understand and which is therefore immune from scrutiny, is not that from a technocratic point of view it makes more sense than the alternatives but that it is credible, transparent and can be used to hold the government to account on an issue voters care about (one reason they care about whether the government is in control is because they care about numbers) – the Tories have understood this and it’s one of the main reasons they will win the next election.

  5. sevillista

    Agree that it is very difficult to limit international migration.

    A quick look at the International Migration statistics show that it is nigh on impossible to control half of immigration. Of 538,000 migrants (some short-term, some long-term) in 2008:

    * 82,000 – 15% – had British citizenship. A Government that attempted to limit this would be laughed out of office

    * 178,000 – 33% – were from the EU. A Government that attempted to limit this would have to judge that the costs of reciprocal action (and other difficulties this will cause the UK) is worth the ambiguous benefits of the measure

    Of the remainder:

    * 126,000 – 23% – were coming to the UK for study. We could control this, but with a damaging impact on UK universities (l
    * 67,000 – 12% – were coming for work (mainly high skilled due to the points system – this is what currently provides the UK Government’s de facto cap)
    * 61,000 – 11% – were coming for family formation reasons – marriage and other
    * 20,000 – 4% – were coming for ‘other’ reasons (I assume this must be asylum seekers who ‘legally’ entered the country)

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