The government’s post-Brexit immigration policy must take this into accountby Aarti Shankar / January 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
The New Year brings with it new Brexit decisions for the government. Following last month’s breakthrough in negotiations, the focus has been on what point the UK wants its future bilateral relations with the EU to take on the spectrum of Norway to Canada. But the government must also plan seriously for other key policy areas that will be affected by the UK’s withdrawal. Immigration is among the most important of these.
Although undoubtedly a key aspect of the referendum result, the government has since failed to engage in a proper debate on immigration. On Wednesday it was reported that Home Secretary Amber Rudd has privately urged Prime Minister Theresa May to remove student immigration numbers from the government’s tens of thousands a year net migration target. This is a reheated argument that, while important to consider, falls well short of the detail and engagement needed in order to devise a new immigration system that both meets the needs of the UK economy and addresses public concern.
The government will not be able to stay silent on this issue for much longer—its immigration White Paper is already substantially delayed but is finally due out soon. It will be followed shortly after by an Immigration Bill. But before laying out its proposals for a post-Brexit immigration system, the government must first understand where public opinion really lies on this issue. Too often the debate on Brexit and immigration is simplified, without any meaningful engagement with what the public really thinks—either the Brexit vote is dismissed as nativist, or it is deemed a mandate to pull up the drawbridge. A new study by Open Europe, “Beyond the Westminster Bubble,” attempts to overcome this. We combined 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 future immigration policy.
We found that the public does want to see immigration reduced, with some support still shown towards the “tens of thousands” target. But this appears largely driven by a “something is better than nothing” principle—we found that the majority would prefer a flexible system with controls to manage immigration, rather than one that prioritises simply reducing numbers. Even among Leave voters—for whom we found immigration is a much more important issue—a substantial minority (43 per cent) chose control over reducing numbers, when asked to select only one preference. So, while immigration was an important driver of the Leave vote, it does not necessarily follow that all Leave voters simply support a highly restrictive immigration system.
“Public attitudes on immigration are not one dimensional”
The public as a whole proved very supportive of immigrants coming to work in specific roles. All jobs we tested, both high and low-skilled, received either net positive or net neutral support from our respondents—only “general jobseekers” received opposition. There was striking support for doctors (61 per cent net support) and nurses (57 per cent), and a comparable level (58 per cent) for anyone coming to work in any area where the UK has a skills shortage.
On the whole, we found “social usefulness” to be a stronger gauge of public support than traditional labour market classifications of high and low skills. For instance, those coming to work as care workers received slightly higher net support than entrepreneurs and computer programmers.
There is a high degree of consensus between Leave and Remain voters about the types of immigration controls they would like to see put in place. For instance, 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. There was similarly strong support for a work permit system, which only allows those with a specific job offer to come to the UK—81 per cent of Leave voters and 68 per cent of Remain voters thought this would be the right approach to controlling immigration, Elsewhere, 74 per cent of Leave voters and 63 per cent of Remain voters supported restricting immigrants’ access to welfare.
But public attitudes on immigration are not one dimensional—people recognise that domestic issues, such as increased pressure on the NHS, schools or social housing, are not uniquely produced by high levels of immigration. In areas such as social care and local healthcare, the public in fact believes that pressures on services stem more from under-investment than immigration. The public therefore wants to see the government pull other policy levers, such as improving skills training for the local workforce, building more houses, or increasing investment in public services, in order to address their concerns.
Our research demonstrates that public attitudes to immigration are more nuanced and sophisticated than often is portrayed. The government must take this on board as it plans the UK’s new post-Brexit immigration system. Engaging with the public’s specific concerns, and identifying areas of consensus, will be the only way to produce a sustainable system that can receive broad support.