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Attitudes towards immigrants have hardened considerably over the past eight years
September 18, 2013

"Most people still say that immigration is either a small problem or no problem in the area where they live"

Immigration has always been a contentious issue. However, in the past, many people have had nuanced views. They have found it possible to combine dislike of the scale of immigration with a recognition that immigrants help Britain’s economy and keep vital public services going.

YouGov’s latest survey for Prospect finds a sharp change. We repeated some questions we asked eight years ago. Hostility to immigration is up and belief in its beneficial effects is down.

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The sharpest change concerns the National Health Service. In 2005, Britons agreed by four-to-one that service would collapse if it couldn’t recruit nurses from abroad. Today, the proportion saying this is true is down from 73 per cent to 50 per cent, while the proportion disagreeing has doubled from 17 per cent to 36 per cent.

The other seismic change concerns attitudes to the European Union. In 2005, people supported by two-to-one “the right of people in EU countries to live and work wherever they want”. Today we oppose free movement by 49 per cent to 38.

How come? Answers to our next question help to explain what has happened. We asked people whether immigrants from seven different parts of the world have had a positive or negative impact on Britain overall.

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Some of the results are unsurprising. For example, few of us think ill of those who have settled here from Australia or the United States. People from India score relatively well, while immigrants from the West Indies attract mixed reviews and those from Nigeria are widely seen in a poor light.

The really striking thing is the contrast between Poland and Romania. By 38 per cent to 29 per cent we think that Poles have had a positive effect on Britain; but when we think about Romanians coming to live here, the verdict is very different: just 15 per cent say positive, while as many as 48 per cent say negative.

With restrictions on people from Romania and Bulgaria about to be lifted, those in politics and beyond who favour free movement will have their work cut out to persuade voters that it is a boon and not a curse. They will be hoping fervently that some of the predictions of mass arrivals from the two countries do not come true.

The biggest specific fears that need addressing are that immigrants have too ready access to welfare benefits, council housing and jobs that they are thought to get by undercutting British-born workers.

The poll offers two straws of comfort for voters who dislike the views of the majority. There has been no rise in the numbers—one-third of all adults—who dislike the thought of an immigrant family moving in next door. And most people still say that immigration is either a small problem or no problem in the area where they live. But even here, opinion is on the move, with the proportion saying it is a big problem locally up from 25 per cent to 37 per cent since 2005.

More on the immigration debate in this month's Prospect:

How much is enough? We do need controls over who comes, but better ones, argues Paul Collier

Nation shopping? Immigration ought to be understood in the context of global economic injustice, says Rowan Williams, as he reviews Paul Collier's new book, Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century