The government’s pledge to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” by the next election is impractical and almost certain to be broken, Business Secretary Vince Cable says.
The Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister said David Cameron’s target was “not sensible” because it was not possible to control European Union migration or Britons leaving or returning to the UK.
The senior Lib Dem, who has a history of speaking out against his coalition colleagues on immigration, said his party had never signed up to the “arbitrary” measure.
In an interview with BBC political editor Nick Robinson for his documentary The Truth About Immigration Mr Cable said: “In our view, certainly the Liberal Democrats’ view, it’s not sensible to have an arbitrary cap because most of the things under it can’t be controlled.
“So it involves British people emigrating – you can’t control that. It involves free movement within the European Union – in and out. It involves British people coming back from overseas, who are not immigrants but who are counted in the numbers.
“So setting an arbitrary cap is not helpful, it almost certainly won’t achieve the below 100,000 level the Conservatives have set anyway, so let’s be practical about it.”
Asked if the target was “a bit of a nonsense” Mr Cable said: “I wouldn’t use the word nonsense, but the idea it should come down to 100,000 is something the Liberal Democrats have never signed up to because we simply regard it as impractical.”
The prime minister admitted in December that the crisis in the eurozone has disrupted his plans to get immigration figures down below 100,000 in time for the 2015 general election.
Mr Cameron’s election time pledge to limit net migration to the tens of thousands was dealt a severe blow with the release of official statistics showing numbers rose to 182,000 in the year to June, from 167,000 the previous year.
Statisticians blamed a “significant” surge in citizens arriving for work from crisis-hit EU countries such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain.
Meanwhile more than three-quarters of British people want to see a cut in immigration, a survey of social attitudes has revealed.
However, fewer people now than in 2011 think immigration is bad for the economy – 47 per cent in 2013 compared with 52 per cent two years previously, new findings from NatCen Social Research’s British Social Attitudes survey found.
Penny Young, chief executive of NatCen Social Research, said: “British Social Attitudes shows that public desire for a cut in immigration to the UK had begun to rise even before the restrictions on migrants from Romania or Bulgaria were lifted at the start of the year.
“Moreover, a majority of people who think immigration is good, economically or culturally, for the UK still want to see it cut.
“These findings highlight the complexity of this issue for politicians facing two elections in 18 months and with limited options if they want to attempt to reduce migration from Europe.
“The public broadly agrees that immigration is too high, but there are stark social divisions over the economic and cultural benefits of immigration.”
The research shows 54 per cent of respondents see immigration as good for the economy and 55 per cent of those who see it is as culturally beneficial also want to see immigration reduced.