We need a people-led commission to shape the future of immigration

Done right, giving people more voice can make immigration policy more publicly owned

December 07, 2022
© Alamy
© Alamy

If you only took your cues from Westminster, you would be forgiven for thinking that anti-immigration sentiment is hardwired in the UK. This idea, which circulates in the political press, is difficult to square with the generous welcome given by Brits hosting Ukrainians, welcoming Hong Kongers or helping resettle Syrians. If you look beyond the headlines, you will see powerful acts of kindness to strangers being carried out everywhere across Britain.

Most people are “balancers” on immigration, seeing both pressures and gains. Since 2016, the balance has shifted in a more positive direction, with a quiet, broad consensus for a pragmatic approach to issuing visas for work and study. For instance, 46 per cent of the public now see the contribution of immigration as positive, compared to just 29 per cent saying negative—a direct reversal of the position in 2015–16. At the same time, we see a more polarised debate and less public consensus over asylum and channel crossings.

Yet the balancer majority gets drowned out by heated debate online, in the media and during political campaigning, which has served to polarise the argument between left and right, cities and towns, young and old.

Most people are “balancers” on immigration, seeing both pressures and gains

I propose that we harness this moment for a comprehensive migration review: a people-led commission charged with taking a fresh, 360-degree view on immigration. A grand jury of sorts, where the public can test the full spectrum of views. How could we manage local impacts fairly if migration stays high? What would the options be for reducing the numbers, if we wanted to do that? Could we do more to promote integration and citizenship for people once they are here? 

Though views differ, this commission would uncover more common ground than many might expect about how to make migration work fairly for those who come here and for the communities they join.

Done right, giving people more voice can make immigration policy more publicly owned. But it can’t be a one-off. The home secretary should publish an annual Migration Statement—like the chancellor’s budget—providing a yearly focal point to respond to public engagement.

Meaningful contact shifts views. We should also have a national welcoming service, with a hub in every local authority area, taking a systemic approach to harnessing the appetite of the wider public to get involved. Broadening the geography of welcoming—and engaging the voice of the public in the immigration choices that we make—is key to keeping policy in step with changing views.

This article first appeared in Minister for the future, a special report produced in association with Nesta.