The public is often portrayed as opposed to migration, and opinion polls do show it is a key issue for voters. But new research by NIESR, published today, finds that members of the public who work with migrants recognise the need for skilled migration. They also willingly acknowledge that they have benefited, writes Dr Heather Rolfe.
In October, Home Secretary Theresa May announced the government’s intention to crack down on ‘health tourists’ who, she argued, are placing our GP surgeries and hospitals under strain. When asked on Radio 4’s Today programme what the costs amounted to, she could only answer that the public feels it is “unfair” that migrants can use services and that they have the “feeling” that these users include people here illegally.
While we would want politicians to listen to the public, basing policy on public opinion is clearly problematic not least because, as Ben Page, director of Ipsos MORI points out, the public can be wrong. This has frequently been the case on the issue of migration, including when it comes to estimating populations:
“The public believes at least a quarter of the UK population was not born here – the actual figure is much lower.”
They also disagree and change their beliefs, attitudes and opinions over time. On an issue like migration they can hold a range of views. Scott Blinder, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, reports the finding that migrants living in one’s own neighbourhood are the most popular with the general public, at odds with the general view that migration is harmful to Britain. So here it seems that political views and personal experiences may be at odds.
At NIESR we recently looked at public attitudes towards skilled migration and how these related to their own experiences of working with migrants. We found a similar picture. Individuals may hold some anti-immigration views but are more positive about their own workplace experiences.
Focus group participants were selected to include a range in terms of their general views about migration, but they were all people who worked with migrants, either settled or more recent. Despite some being generally opposed to immigration, and agreeing with the statement that “immigrants take jobs away from British workers,” they also agreed with the statement that “employers should be able to recruit migrants to work in jobs where their skills are needed.”
At the same time, they felt that issues affecting the supply of skills within the UK need to be addressed. These included equipping UK workers with the skills which employers need, which were seen as a mixture of technical skills and attitudes, often described as employability. To address this, the education system and young people themselves were seen as in need of change. There was a general consensus that those in the UK born now need to ‘up their game’ as labour markets become increasingly global, that employers want recruits who have wider perspectives and interests in life beyond the UK.
But employers were not seen as blameless. Recruitment of migrants, even at the highly skilled end, was seen as driven by cost considerations, to a greater extent than employers usually say. Migration was also seen as providing employers with a disincentive to provide training, and that young British people are losing out through lack of training investment – again, something that employers often dispute.
While heated at times, discussions cooled to more amicable agreement when it came to people’s own experiences of working with migrants – the benefits and the disadvantages. They talked of a range of benefits of working with people from different backgrounds, who brought different perspectives and approaches. Specific inputs included cultural understandings and languages in services working with customers and local migrant communities, craft skills in education and perspectives on design in architecture and engineering. A number of these differences were seen to benefit service users, for example in health and social work.
Participants were also inclined to agree with the statement that “teams which are diverse, in terms of gender, race and background, can often be more productive than ones where everyone is the same.” Many participants said they enjoyed working with migrants and that mixed teams were sometimes more positive and lively. Diverse teams were also seen to sometimes bring challenges, particularly in terms of communication, but the positives were seen to outweigh the negatives.
So when it comes to the workplace, migration seems to be a success story for some people at least. If Theresa May were to step into some of the workplaces of focus group participants – the NHS, schools, engineering companies, London Underground – she might find a different ‘feeling’ about migration. A positive one, where British workers are working alongside migrants, exchanging skills, knowledge and experiences and sharing an important part of their lives.
Dr Heather Rolfe is principal research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.