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Public attitudes to immigration are more nuanced than you think

Politicians must take that into account

By Jill Rutter  

Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

Immigration policy has for some time been premised on the idea that immigration is deeply unpopular—and hence the “tougher” policies are, the more public support they will gain. Recent research, however, shows that attitudes to immigration are gradually becoming more positive—and that voters take a more balanced view than politicians credit. Here is how public policy should take that into account.

Over 15 months British Future and HOPE undertook the National Conversation on Immigration, the biggest-ever public consultation on this issue. We held more than 130 meetings in 60 places in every nation and region of the UK. Together with an open online survey and a nationally representative survey conducted by ICM, some 19,951 people took part.

Face-to-face discussion gave people a chance to share their views, and, in many cases, come to a consensus. But these moderate and balancing opinions are not reflected everywhere. Online and media debates about immigration are dominated by relatively few voices, where those with stronger views at either end of the spectrum are most likely to voice their opinions. Immigration policy needs to be better at responding to the views of the majority, rather than those who shout the loudest.

Brexit has opened a window of opportunity to reform immigration policy and to put in place a system that protects refugees, works for employers and commands broad public trust and support. In Open and Ethical, a new Fabian Society report, I argue this confidence cannot be fully restored without engaging the public in a debate about their views, their concerns and the policy changes they would like to see made.

Contribution, control and fairness emerged as common themes in all of our discussions. The citizens’ panels wanted migrants who come to the UK to make a contribution, through the skills they bring, the jobs they do and through taxation. There was strong support for highly skilled migrants, with the panels also taking a pragmatic view about low- and medium-skilled migration when they saw migrants filling jobs that need doing.

At the same time, the citizens’ panels also wanted immigration to be controlled, but with “control” meaning different things to different people: UK sovereignty over immigration policy, a selective immigration system, competent enforcement and in some cases controls over numbers. While the panels wanted immigration to be controlled, they also wanted the system to be fair, both to migrants and to receiving communities. There is strong public support for a balance, and for the Home Office to have the resources it needs to enforce regulations, but also treat migrants humanely and fairly.

As well as common themes, there were some striking local differences in the issues that citizens’ panels raised.

It was clear that social contact with migrants has a major impact on how the citizens’ panels viewed immigration and immigrants. Where such interaction took place, the citizens’ panels based their opinions on these interactions, rather than on what we have called “community narratives” drawn from the media and peer group debate. In places where migrants are less well integrated into their local communities, negative public views tended to predominate.

The government is embarking on 12 months engagement on its immigration white paper, before legislation in early 2020. But the policy proposals set out so far do not fulfil the requirements of meeting the UK’s economic needs, while securing public confidence and support.The government should look at a system that has confidence-building as an explicit aim. A three-year plan for migration, reviewed every year in parliament, should replace the net migration target.

Securing public support will also require promoting integration and addressing local pressure points. During the visits for the national conversation, neighbourhood decline appeared to be the most widely expressed localised concern associated with immigration. Asylum seekers and new migrants from the EU tend to be over-represented in cheaper, overcrowded and often badly-maintained private rental accommodation located in particular neighbourhoods or streets. In a large number of towns and cities this has led to an association between migration and neighbourhood decline.

All too often integration is seen as about “them,” with programmes of work largely focused on migrants and minority ethnic and faith groups, particularly Muslims. Integration needs to be about everybody and everywhere. Such an approach would help rebuild confidence in the government’s integration agenda among Muslim communities, who have sometimes felt that they have been unfairly put under the spotlight.

There are choppy waters ahead. But we have the opportunity to get the immigration debate and system right. Engaging more broadly on this issue with voters should be at the heart of such reforms and the National Conversation on Immigration shows not only that this is possible, but also that we can find consensus on immigration, if we give people a chance.

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