Immigration: What the Public Want

Posted on 16 December 2011

Most of the British public would like to see immigration levels reduced, as opinion polls consistently show. But public attitudes towards which categories of immigration should be cut, and which should be kept at the same levels are less well known, argues Sunder Katwala.

The complexities of those public attitudes are drawn out by new polling from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, revealing some sharp distinctions when it comes to whether or not the public would apply its too many immigrants instinct to particular groups of immigrants.
So the poll confirms that 69% of people would like immigration to fall, with 45% favouring large reductions, and 24% preferring it to be reduced a little, while 19% favour current levels of immigration and 6% wanting higher levels of immigration than at present. But the counter balance is that when asked which types of people should not be given visas, public attitudes are far more complicated than headlines would suggest. The public are very selective about where they want cuts in migration to fall – and turn out to be happy about current levels of immigration inseveral categories, including businesspeople, care workers, immediate family members and students, which together make up a large proportion of immigration to the UK.

The Thinking Behind the Numbers report and polling, available at the Migration Observatory website, will doubtless be used to bolster a range of different views in the immigration debate. The Sunday Telegraph newspaper, tending to the immigration sceptic side of the argument, highlights a high level of public concern about low skill immigration, worrying that the government can not do much about this with regard to lower skilled immigrants from other EU member states.

Immigration Minister Damian Green believes that the poll legitimises what the government is trying to do, telling the Sunday Telegraph that “We have made sweeping changes to get a grip on immigration in this country, closing down routes that were subject to abuse and taking action against those with no right to be here. This is clearly in line with what the public want us to be doing. There is much more to be done and we will stick to our course.”

Up to a point, minister.

The survey does indeed suggest that the government is broadly in touch with public attitudes, in both its general instinct to lower immigration and in favouring immigration where it is in this countrys national interest. So David Cameron last week, making much of the tough measures needed to get immigration down, also made the case for a hard-headed approach so that Britain would both reduce immigration and remain the destination of choice for the brightest and best. The government might also suggest that the modest preference for temporary over permanent immigration reflects its policy to make settlement more difficult, though it might turn out to be the case that the public might instinctively take one view when thinking about immigration, and another when thinking about integration.

The poll findings also show why governments believe that talking tough on illegal immigration will resonate. However, it was a broadly supportive editorial in the right-of-centre Daily Telegraph which warned that the Prime Ministers suggestion that the public should report suspected illegal immigrants, that sounds like a dangerous piece of populism that could have unfortunate consequences. That newspaper favours good border control but was sensible to warn that the shop an illegal headlines was going too far.

But the poll also shows that the public desire for less immigration in general does not include support for reductions in several of the areas David Cameron proposed. One striking finding is that, among the 69% who want less immigration, a majority want the reduction to be entirely (28%) or mostly (26%) among illegal immigrants, even after the quarter of the population who are happy with overall immigration levels have been excluded from the responses.

This shows that support for tighter restrictions on legal migration routes is contingent and more complex. Indeed, the detailed poll results also enable the construction of a keep or cut analysis of which types of immigration the British public would and would not like to see reduced, by combining the numbers who would maintain or increase levels of a particular type of immigration compared to those who would reduce it.

One striking thing is how many keep categories there are where there are public majorities in favour of current levels of immigration. Most of the public would not cut the numbers of university students (31% to cut and 57% to keep), students learning English in language schools (33-56), students in further education (32-56), business and finance professionals (40-47), IT specialists (41-47), care workers (40-49), scientists and researchers (30-60). These are not only economic judgements. The public also oppose reducing immigration for non-British immediate family members (41-47), such as husbands, wives, partners and dependents under 18, of British citizens. The minority support for cutting immigration in these cases is also divided fairly equally between those who would reduce it a little and reduce it a lot. (Support for large reductions across these categories ranges between 16% and 26%).

The categories where the public would like to cut the numbers of immigrants are low skilled workers (64-27), restaurant staff (58-32), construction labourers (57-33) extended family members (58-31) and applications for asylum and refugee status (56-32). There is also stronger support for larger reductions, with large majorities, between 37% and 44% favouring large reductions in these categories.

The poll illuminates an important dilemma faced by the Coalition government as it tries to manage levels of immigration.

It could decide to note that there is less pressure to try to reduce those types of immigration where public majorities are happy with current levels, and to try and concentrate on the areas where the public is concerned about immigration levels being reduced. But if it did that, it would be less likely to achieve the overall numbers headline goal which has set itself, and so come under pressure for not having achieved the broadly popular goal of reducing immigration.

The poll suggests that the public might not particularly understand this dilemma because most people believe that the types of immigration they dont like are much larger than those that they do, when they actually turn out to have benign views about the largest immigration flows and restrictive views about smaller ones.

So the new poll suggests that people believe there are more asylum seekers applying for refugee status than there are economic migrants, even though there were only 17,790 applications for asylum last year just 4% of immigrants to the UK. Asylum was more than four times as high a decade ago there were over 83000 applications in 2002. This led to a sharp increase in public and political concern about asylum, and about immigration in general, as the asylum numbers rose. Those perceptions seem to have remained even as the numbers have fallen sharply, and to be having an impact on attitudes towards migration more generally. It might, therefore, be that business advocates concerned about a tightening of policy have reasons to be concerned about the general climate of public debate towards other forms of migration, such as asylum, too. (Previous polls have consistently shown there is strong majority support for the principle that refugees who need protection should get sanctuary, but the public clearly also significantly overstate the scale of asylum claims).

Public attitudes are, of course, an important part of democratic politics, though few people would suggest that it is simply the role of elected leaders to follow opinion.

Paradoxically, a government which is seeking to be in touch with public attitudes would seem to be caught with a dilemma of needing to cut areas of immigration about which most of the public are sanguine.

The Prime Minister is setting out to take what he calls a middle-of-the-road approach to immigration. A characteristic of his speeches is to challenge extreme views on both sides of the argument. He is right to say that an argument between those who would open the borders or seek to close them does not address any of the real policy choices involving in managing immigration in practice. But his speech was probably tougher than his policy. He deliberately sought to empathise with, and indeed endorse, perceptions that immigration had been spiralling out of control. In fact, immigration had been high but steady since 2004, at around 575,000 a year. David Cameron talked about that being much too high, yet the Conservative net migration target would keep five-sixths of current levels of immigration, since that target would have allowed for gross immigration between 436,000 last year, when emigration fell, and well over half a million in 2008.

Again, the government could choose to use the new poll to show that moderate – rather than dramatic – cuts in immigration are where the public are. Overall opinionis fairly equally divided between a large minority of 45% who would like to see immigration reduced a lot, and the 49% who favour either small reductions, or the current level of immigration or more.

As the Coalition grapples with the political and policy dilemmas and trade-offs of trying to make immigration policy work while seeking public support, the government might want to welcome this new polling evidence that the public may well be open to politicians helping to open up a more nuanced debate than one which focuses only on the question more or less.

This blog post was originally published on the Iain Dale blog, www.iaindale.com.


Posted in Commentary