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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