Stephen Booth is Director of Policy and Research at the think tank Open Europe. The new report ‘Beyond the Westminster Bubble: What people really think about immigration’ is available here.
With the UK and EU making sufficient progress on the Article 50 withdrawal negotiations, we must now turn our attention to the more consequential questions that need to be answered throughout the Brexit process. Much attention has understandably been focused on what the trading relationship under the future UK-EU partnership should be. But the Government also needs to start setting out how it will address other vital issues. Immigration must be at the top of the list.
Given its importance during the EU referendum campaign, it is striking how little we have debated how our immigration system should develop post-Brexit since the referendum result on 23 June 2016. Many commentators, at home and abroad, simply interpret Brexit as a mandate to pull up the drawbridge and see it as evidence of rising intolerance. But the British public’s attitudes on immigration are far more nuanced and sophisticated than often is portrayed in political or media debate.
It is clear that there is little public confidence in the current immigration system – a hybrid of complete free movement of EU nationals and highly restrictive policies on non-EU nationals – or in the Government’s ability meet its net immigration target of reducing it to the “tens of thousands”. But most people identify both positive as well as negative aspects of immigration. We must seize this opportunity to establish a system that can both command popular support and harness the benefits that immigration brings to our economy and society.
In the New Year, the Government is due to publish a new Immigration Bill. In devising a new system it is essential that policymakers understand what the public really does – and, just as crucially, does not – think about immigration. Today, Open Europe has published a new report, which combines a 4,000-person ICM poll across Great Britain with a series of focus groups in England conducted by Public First to provide an evidence base for a sensible conversation about post-Brexit immigration policy.
Our results show that the public want to see immigration reduced, but there is a clear preference for a system with greater controls over how immigration is managed than a simple reduction in numbers. Fifty-six per cent of the public agreed with “allowing immigrants to come to the UK as long as there are controls to make sure they will contribute to our society, economy and way of life”, versus 36 per cent who preferred simply “reducing the numbers of people coming into the UK”. Even amongst Leave voters, a substantial minority (43 per cent) chose control over reducing numbers. So, while immigration was an important driver of the Leave vote, it does not necessarily follow that all Leave voters support a highly restrictive immigration system.
We also asked whether the public supported immigrants coming to the UK to work in various professions. Immigrants coming for every specific role we tested received a positive or neutral level of support from respondents. Only “general jobseeker” received net opposition. Public support is greatest where roles are perceived to be ‘socially useful’. Care workers received slightly greater support (33 per cent net positive) than entrepreneurs (27 per cent) or computer programmers (27 per cent). Bankers (one per cent) received comparable support to waiters (one per cent) and cleaners (zero per cent). Doctors (61 per cent) and nurses (57 per cent) received strikingly positive levels of support – but at a comparable level to any occupation in which the UK has a “skill shortage” (58 per cent).
There is a high degree of consensus between Leave and Remain voters about the types of controls they would like to see on immigration. There is overwhelming support for increased criminal background checks on those entering the UK, across both Leave and Remain voters – 80 per cent of Leave voters and 73 per cent of Remain voters believed that if such a policy existed, their concerns about immigration would be reduced. Meanwhile, 74 per cent of Leavers and 63 per cent of Remainers backed restricting immigrants’ access to welfare. Our polling found that factors such as race, religion or sexual orientation were by far the least important attributes of potential migrants for both Leave and Remain voters. Overall, the evidence demonstrates that public attitudes towards immigration – and indeed Brexit – are not fuelled by racism or intolerance.
In terms of policy, the Government will need to explore a work permit system that can facilitate immigration where it is most productive. There is a clear demand for criminal background checks for long-term migrants and stricter contribution-based access to the UK’s welfare system. People also want the Government to pull other policy levers, including skills training, house building, and investment in services, and said that this would reduce their concerns about the impact of immigration.
There is room for manoeuvre for a government that wishes to embrace the economic benefits of immigration. But it must demonstrate that the public’s concerns are being met.