30 March 2015

Public wants immigration promises that can be kept

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As the formal dissolution of Parliament marks the official start of the General Election campaign, the party leaders and candidates across the political spectrum are putting the final touches to their manifestoes and local election addresses, as they prepare to seek the trust of the voters who will choose our elected representatives.

Immigration will be one of the major themes of the election. New poll findings from ICM for British Future show that, with trust on immigration at low levels, there is a strong public appetite to hear promises that can be kept on the subject.

Net migration is currently 298,000 a year, triple the level which the current government hoped to achieve during the last Parliament.

There is now widespread scepticism about the idea that the target would be met if the pledge was repeated: 86% think such a promise would be unlikely to be delivered.

Three-quarters of people agree with the idea of politicians aiming at a smaller reduction in migration if that means that it can be delivered, while 22% think it could help their efforts to repeat the existing target once again.

There is also widespread support for avoiding a ‘one size fits all’ approach – with the public supporting the idea that sensible targets would treat different types of immigration differently. This finding reflects strong evidence of nuanced public attitudes to immigration, with many people wanting an approach which distinguishes between skilled and unskilled immigration, and which separates out issues of students coming to study, economic migration numbers, and Britain’s commitments to protect refugees.

Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, said:

“To restore trust on immigration, politicians need to make promises they can keep. The public are right. There is no real world chance of meeting the current net migration target in the next Parliament. The numbers just don’t add up”.

“As David Cameron told Jeremy Paxman, immigration rose because of Britain’s economic success against Europe.  It makes no sense for the Prime Minister to repeat an immigration pledge which is bound to fail if his economic plan works.

“None of the supporters of this target have ever produced a plan to meet it. Repeating the net migration target without any credible route map to get there is like proposing to eliminate the budget deficit without any policies on government spending or tax.”

Rather than remaining in denial about the failed target, every political party should ensure they set targets they can meet – and set out their plans to achieve their goals.That should include a much clearer plan for ensuring resources move more quickly to the areas of rapid change when immigration is higher than the government had hoped.

These findings suggest the public would rather have smaller promises do which deliver some progress – and for politicians of all parties to be clearer about both the pressures and benefits of migration. Voters want governments to address pressures from higher levels of unskilled migration, while keeping the benefits of skills that Britain needs, and would support an approach which  separates debates about the numbers of economic migrants out from the issues of student migration and our long-standing commitments to protect refugees”.


British Future’s report How to Talk About Immigration sets out advice for all of the political parties about how to engage with the public over both the pressures and benefits of immigration, on the basis of their own values and principles. Read an extract here.

Poll findings

1. Net migration is currently 298,000 rather than at the targeted level of 100,000. If the government pledged to reduce net migration to 100,000 over the next five years, how likely or unlikely do you think they will be to meet this promise this time around?

Likely: 14%
Unlikely: 86%

2. Still thinking about the government setting targets for net migration, which of the following statements best reflects your opinion.

I would rather the government set a target that it can deliver on, even if that meant aiming at a smaller reduction in migration: 78%

It would be good to repeat the net migration target, even if it couldn’t be met in practice: 22%

3. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement:

‘Rather than a one size fits all approach to cutting immigration levels, sensible targets would treat different types of immigrants differently – for example skilled and unskilled, students or refugees.’

agree 75%

disagree 10%

ICM polled a representative sample of 2011 members of the British public. The fieldwork took place online between 6th and 9th March 2015. 



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