Media Release

Scrap ‘poisoned well’ immigration target

The Government’s promise to cut net immigration to tens of thousands is a “poisoned well” creating problems across British politics and should be abandoned, a think-tank has said.

In a paper published today, the Social Market Foundation says the Government’s commitment to reducing net immigration to tens of thousands is increasingly out of step with public opinion, and incompatible with ideas of Britain as an “open” society and economy.

The target has been in place since 2010 but has never been met. The SMF found that the target helps to inflate public concerns about immigration, while eroding public trust in politicians to respond to those concerns.

While some Brexit campaigners suggested that leaving the EU was necessary to control immigration and reduce net arrivals to tens of thousands, the paper notes that non-EU migration – where the Government can exercise significant control – has consistently exceeded 100,000.

The report, Immigration: an opportunity to lead, shows that UK public opinion has shifted since the EU referendum in 2016, and is more open to immigration than is commonly perceived. This creates an opportunity for “open market” politicians to have a more honest conversation with voters about migration policy, a conversation that should start with scrapping the tens of thousands target.The overarching commitment to cut net immigration numbers is leading to unpopular and damaging migration policies, the cross-party think-tank said, citing caps on the entry of foreign doctors and the scandal of Windrush Britons facing deportation.

Jonathan Thomas, SMF migration researcher said:

“From visas for doctors to Windrush, ministers are having to solve problems that their own target creates. And at the same, the failure to meet that target undermines public trust in Government not just on immigration but more broadly.”

The proportion of British voters saying immigration has been positive for the country has doubled since 2011, while the figures for most EU countries have fallen. The UK figures for positive attitudes on immigration are now higher than those in Canada, often seen as a liberal beacon on migration.

While significant numbers of voters remain concerned about immigration, growing evidence shows that many are open to reconsidering their position.

The SMF said that a concerted political push from “open market” politicians of all parties to make a more positive case for immigration is now essential.

Otherwise, the failures associated with the target could provide an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn’s immigration platform, which combines a softer tone on humanitarian immigration (such as the treatment of asylum seekers) with promises of significant restrictions on European economic migrants.

Jonathan Thomas said:

“Politicians who seek a more open debate on immigration should start by talking about the growing body of evidence that shows public opinion is shifting and shiftable. Political leadership can have real and positive influence on public opinion.”

“But if politicians who believe in an open market and society fail to act, sticking instead to the ‘tens of thousands’ target, they run a real risk that public concerns close Britain off to the benefits that migration can bring.”

James Kirkup, SMF Director said:

“The net immigration target is politics at its worst. Almost all the politicians who say they are committed to it don’t really believe in it, but they’re not willing to be honest with voters about that.”

“The ‘tens of thousands’ target means bad faith and bad policy. Britain is crying out for real leadership on immigration, and anyone who wants to lead should start by telling the truth about why the target should be scrapped.”

“Any Brexit deal that Britain strikes with the EU will mean significant European migration continues for years to come. Politicians should be honest with voters about that, and abandoning the damaging, dishonest net migration target would be a good way to start that honest conversation.”

The SMF call to scrap the target follows a similar recommendation from the cross-party Commons Home Affairs Committee earlier this year.



For more information or to arrange an interview, contact James Kirkup, SMF Director, on or 07815 706 601

The paper will be published at on Monday 2 July 2018 at 06.00.


About the SMF:

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets. The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.

The SMF is a registered charity and makes its funding public. Our work on migration is partly supported by a grant from Unbound Philanthropy, a private grant-giving foundation that aims to improve the quality of political debate and policy around immigration in Britain and the US. SMF retains complete editorial independence.


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