The government’s flagship immigration policy is a “blunt instrument” and risks damaging the economy, a leading Tory backbencher has said.
Nadhim Zahawi said he supported the goal of cutting net migration – set out by the Tories in opposition – from more than 200,000 to “tens of thousands”.
But he said he was worried it was dissuading foreign students from coming here and hurting British universities.
“It effectively pits our border policy against our growth policy,” he said.
The Conservatives pledged in their 2010 manifesto to substantially reduce annual net migration – the difference between the numbers entering and leaving the UK – by 2015.
Speaking on Tuesday, Home Secretary Theresa May defended the target and said the party would do “everything” it could to meet it over the next three years.
The target was not included in the coalition agreement and has caused tension with the Lib Dems – who argue it could deter highly skilled workers required in sectors of the economy.
For far too long we have sort of become prisoners of the Daily Mail headline”
Mr Zahawi, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who was born in Baghdad, Iraq, to Kurdish parents, who sought asylum in the UK during Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, co-founded polling company YouGov.
He told a Tory conference fringe meeting that migration targets could be useful “yardsticks” for holding the government to account but he had concerns about how it was being explained.
“We need to be straight with the British public about what we mean when we sign up to targets.
“When you boil down a set of values and principles into a single numerical figure, a target can become an end in itself rather than a means to an end.”
The net migration target was designed to usher in a more efficient, fairer system but the government had to be honest with the public about “what it meant and how it can be improved”.
“The current target is a blunt instrument. And it effectively pits our border policy against our growth policy and we are not being straight with the public about that.”
He said there was clear evidence the public wanted tighter controls over immigration, but the issue was “more nuanced” than media stories about abuse of the system suggested.
“For far too long we have sort of become prisoners of the Daily Mail headline. We need to pull back from that.”