Drop the target


Run jointly with The Independent, Open Britain is running a campaign called ‘Drop the Target’ which urges the Government to abandon their stated ambition of cutting net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’.

A group of cross-party MPs have written an open letter to outline why they believe this is an unachievable target that, if met, would deny our country of the skills, talent and labour on which our economy relies. If the Government is to retain the policy, the leading supporters of the Open Britain campaign challenge Ministers to answer ten questions to justify keeping the target.

This campaign is backed by the Migration Matters Trust, the Royal College of Midwives, and The Independent. CIPD, the professional body for HR & people development, and Development have also spoken out against the target.

Open Britain will be launching a petition on a dedicated web page on its website to encourage its supporters to sign up.

The Government’s ability to meet their own target has been undermined in recent months by numerous Government Ministers suggesting that there will not be a reduction of EU workers in major sectors of the economy, including hospitality, catering, social care, agriculture, financial services, construction, farming and universities. Combined, those employed in these sectors make up 34% of all EU nationals currently working in the UK. 

In their letter, Anna Soubry MP, Pat McFadden MP and Norman Lamb MP, co-founders of the Open Britain campaign, write that they are “concerned about the economic and social implications of plans to dramatically reduce migration to the tens of thousands.” They “consider keeping the target to not only be economically damaging but also potentially socially divisive, as it is based on the premise that migrants are a negative for our country when they are in fact the opposite.”

The MPs backing the Drop the Target campaign argue that “EU workers are indispensable to the UK workforce” and that it would be “difficult and damaging … to make huge reductions in future numbers of EU migrants coming to the UK.” The letter finishes by asking the Government to answer ten questions in detail to justify keeping the target as the key driver of migration policy.


Notes to editors 

Full Text of Letter 

In today's world, immigration is a fact of life. Thousands of people from inside and outside the EU make a positive contribution to the UK, just as thousands of British people do all over the world.  Moving abroad is not a crime and not a threat. It's the way the world works and most people who do it are determined to do a good job wherever they go.

EU migrants make a vital contribution to our country. They bring innovation and ideas to our economy; they pay taxes that help us invest in our public services; and they are our friends, family and neighbours. This is why we are concerned about the economic and social implications of plans to dramatically reduce migration to the tens of thousands.

The Prime Minister has confirmed that this remains Government policy. Recently, however, Government Ministers have suggested that there will not be a reduction of EU workers in major sectors of the economy, including hospitality, catering, social care, agriculture, financial services, construction, farming and universities. Combined, the EU nationals employed in the sectors that Ministers have suggested will be protected make up 34% of EU nationals currently working in the UK.

This, in our view, does not represent fully the numbers of EU workers that are indispensable to the UK workforce, but it does show how difficult and damaging it would be to make huge reductions in future numbers of EU migrants coming to the UK.

The tens of thousands target means annual migration will have to be reduced by over 170,000. In light of Ministers’ comments about key sectors, the bulk of this reduction will fall on non-EU migrants and EU migrants in non-protected sectors, such as energy, manufacturing, information and communication, science, or areas of the public sector.

Such a reduction focused on these sectors would deny businesses of the skills and talent they need and exposes the target as unachievable. We agree with the Government’s commitment in its recent White Paper on the UK and the EU that we must be a country ‘that recognises the valuable contribution migrants make to our society and welcomes those with the skills and expertise to make our nation better still.’  This ambition is, however, incompatible with the tens of thousands target.

Indeed, we consider keeping the target to not only be economically damaging but also potentially socially divisive, as it is based on the premise that migrants are a negative for our country when they are in fact the opposite. 

If this is to remain official Government policy, however, it should be justified, so we urge the Government to answer these questions:

  1. When will the target be reached and will any changes to current freedom of movement rules be subject to a transitional period?
  2. What is the economic rationale for the target and what evidence can be provided to demonstrate it will stimulate economic growth?
  3. Given net migration is at present almost evenly split between EU and non-EU migration, will this continue with an aim for approximately 50,000 EU migrants and 50,000 non-EU migrants?
  4. In which of the now non-protected sectors of the economy will there be a significant reduction of EU migrants, and what assessment has been made of the impact?
  5. What assessment has been made of the impact of the target on the public sector?
  6. What assessment has been made of the impact on skills shortages in specific trades and sectors?
  7. Will the Government publish all submissions businesses and trade bodies have made regarding the impact of pursuing this target?
  8. What skills training measures will be put in place to directly replace lost EU labour?
  9. In which regions will the impact of the reduction of EU migrants be felt most acutely, and at what cost?
  10. What assessment has been made of the numbers that will be lost due to UK employment growth slowing, versus the numbers that will be lost as a direct consequence of changes in government migration policy?

We very much hope the Government will take the time to engage with the implications of their target and, if it is to remain as the driver of UK migration policy, answer the above questions in detail.”

Anna Soubry MP

Pat McFadden MP

Norman Lamb MP

Supporters of ‘Drop the Target’

Barbara Roche, Chair of Migration Matters Trust, said: 

“The Government should drop their damaging migration target. Our immigration system needs to address the skills shortages in the economy and provide us with talent for the future. The target will exacerbate shortages and cut us off from the skilled and experienced people we need to grow our economy. Coupled with the decision to leave the single market, which threatens British jobs and livelihoods, the Government’s approach brings the worst of all worlds.”

Cathy Warwick, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: 

“I have worked in healthcare my entire life. I want to see the NHS offer the best care it can. And that comes from the NHS being open to professionals from across Europe and the world. An arbitrary net migration cap would limit our ability to do that and inevitably result in a health service with fewer of the best specialists, less able to care for the people of this country. That is surely not what anyone wants. It’s time to drop the target.”


Sectors protected from cuts to EU migration

In recent months, various Cabinet Minister have specified different sectors which will not be affected by any crackdown on immigration from the EU after Brexit. 

  • “In the hospitality sectorhotels and restaurants, in the social-care sector, working in agriculture, it will take time. It will be years and years before we get British citizens to do those jobs. Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut – it won’t.”

David Davis, 21/02/2017. Link

  • “We recognise that there will be a need for immigration to fill some of the gaps in the short term, possibly longer than that, so we are not planning any changes that would mean that care homes and domiciliary care agencies were not able to recruit the staff they needed.”

Jeremy Hunt, 24/01/2017. Link

  • "I've heard this loud and clear around the country, whether in Herefordshire, Sussex, or Northamptonshire, and I want to pay tribute to the many workers from Europe who contribute so much to our farming industry and rural communities. Access to labour is very much an important part of our current discussions - and we're committed to working with you to make sure you have the right people with the right skills."

Andrea Leadsom, 04/01/2017. Link

  • “It is important that we attract the world’s brightest and best students to our fantastic universities, and all of us in the Government have a commitment to that. We have visa arrangements in place so that people can work in graduate jobs after that, and it is important that they should be able to do so.”

Greg Clark, 08/11/2016. Link

  • “I certainly have been seeking to reassure financial services businesses that we will put their needs at the heart of our negotiation with the European Union. We understand their needs for market access. We also understand their needs to be able to engage the right skilled people. I have said on the record, and I’m happy to say again today, that I do not believe the concerns the British people have expressed about migration from the European Union relate to people with high skills and high pay. The problem that people are concerned about is people taking entry-level jobs. I see no likelihood that we will use powers to control migration into the UK to prevent companies bringing highly skilled, highly paid workers here.”

Philip Hammond, 25/10/2016. Link

  • The secretary of state for communities and local government said any new immigration system for EU workers such as “work visas” would be designed to ensure that “the building sector has got whatever it needs to reach my ambition” of building 1m homes by 2020 … “Wherever we end up, the government is determined to get a good deal for Britain. Whether it’s construction or any other sector, we don’t want to make it any more difficult for those industries than it is.”

Sajid Javid, 30/09/2016. Link


Net migration in to the UK was estimated to be +273,000 in YE Sept 2016. To get this down to 100,000 to meet the ‘tens of thousands’ target, a reduction of 173,000 would therefore be required

According to the Office for National Statistics, in the year ending June 2016 there were 31.079 million people employed in the United Kingdom. 27.792 million of them were UK nationals; 2.053 million were EU nationals; and 1.232 million were non-EU nationals (Source: Office for National Statistics – Supplementary Written Evidence (BMP0004), 2016)

699,000 EU nationals were employed in the sectors named by Government ministers – agriculture, forestry and fishing; construction; accommodation and food services; financial and insurance activities; and human health and social work activities – in the year ending June 2016, according to the ONS. Collectively this represents 34% of EU migrants working in the UK (Source: Office for National Statistics – Supplementary Written Evidence (BMP0004), 2016).

This leaves 1.354 million EU nationals employed in the remaining sectors: mining, energy and water supply; manufacturing; motor trades; transport and storage; information and communication; real estate activities; professional, scientific and technical activities; administrative and support services; public administration, defence and social security; education; and other services (Source: Office for National Statistics – Supplementary Written Evidence (BMP0004), 2016).


Number of EU workers (000s)

Number of EU workers (% of sector)

Agriculture, forestry and fishing



Mining, energy and water supply









Wholesale, retail & repair of motor vehicles



Transport and storage



Accommodation and food services



Information and communication



Financial and insurance activities



Real estate activities



Professional, scientific and technical activities



Administrative and support services



Public administration and defence; social security






Human health and social work activities



Contribution made by EU nationals to our country and economy 

  • They are vitally important for the NHS. 55,000 EU citizens work in NHS England (Source: FullFact.org). The IPPR think tank has said “without them the NHS would collapse” (Source: The Guardian, ‘NHS needs EU employees to avoid collapse, says thinktank’, 25 August 2016). The Royal College of Midwives has said that losing EU staff would “impact hugely on an already overstretched and struggling maternity service” (Source: Royal College of Midwives, ‘Call for assurances for EU midwives’, 13 September 2016).
  • They put more into the system than they take out. Research by University College London has shown that between 2000 and 2011, EU nationals in the UK made a net contribution to the public finances of £20bn, as they paid more in taxes than they claimed in state benefits (Source: The Guardian, ‘UK gains £20bn from European migrants, UCL economists reveal’, 5 November 2014).
  • They work hard. EU citizens living in Britain work hard, with research showing that since 1995, a steady three quarters of European migrants between 16 and 65 in Britain have been in employment - a higher figure than for their British counterparts (Source: Office for National Statistics, ‘Migration Statistics Quarterly Report August 2014’, 28 August 2014).
  • They are vital for our universities. The presence of students from other EU countries in the UK creates 34,000 jobs and is worth £3.7bn to our economy, through a mixture of fees and on-campus spending, according to research by Universities UK (Source: Times Higher Education, ‘EU students generate £3.7 billion for UK economy, says UUK’, 8 April 2016).
  • Less immigration could mean the pension age being raised. John Cridland, the former CBI director who is reviewing the state pension age for the Government, has said labour shortages caused by a fall in immigration could require people to work for longer, meaning the state pension age would have to be raised (Source: The Telegraph, ‘Brexit migration cuts could push state pension age up’, 13 February 2017). 
  • Ending free movement would cause damaging skills shortages. Research by NIESR has found that free movement has not pushed Brits out of employment, and indeed it has “helped employers create and sustain more flexible and efficient business models.” The impact of Brexit therefore would be “significant and damaging” for British businesses (Source: NIESR, ‘Employers in low skilled sectors say ending free movement would harm their businesses’, 27 April 2016).
  • Creating a new immigration system will be costly and complex. Eliminating free movement of people will require the UK Government to design a completely new migration regime covering people coming from the EU to the UK. Even Eurosceptic think tanks like the IEA say doing so would be “hugely complex.” They also say: “The consequent extra regulation would, in itself, more than outweigh any remotely plausible gains from reducing ‘EU red tape’ post-Brexit” (Source: IEA, ‘Ending free movement of people in Europe will create a bureaucratic nightmare’, 8 July 2016).
  • Ending free movement would damage the social care sector. Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics at the Cabinet Office and former head of NIESR, has said: "In social care, where you have, effectively, constrained Government funding, then it is much more a set of political questions really as to how you respond. Whether it's more money, or less care, or some combination” (Source: Business Reporter, ‘Ending free movement could hit businesses and prices, Lords committee told’, 1 December 2016).