Only about a third of the public think the Government will meet its net migration target in the next 5 years, even after Brexit, according to polling for a new British Future report, What next after Brexit? Immigration and integration in post-referendum Britain.
Together with repeated polls showing immigration ranking alongside the economy and the NHS as the issues that they care most about, it’s an indicator of just how low public trust has fallen in governments’ competence to manage immigration.
It would be wrong, however, to confuse mistrust in the system and concerns about the pressures brought by high migration with a determination to reduce all immigration at all costs. Ask the public what they think about different types of immigration, as ICM has done for this report, and one finds that most people have balanced, moderate views – a preference for cuts to some flows of immigration and increases in others:
- Only 12% of people would like to see a reduction in the numbers of highly skilled workers migrating to Britain; nearly four times as many (46%) would like to see more of it, with 42% saying that it should stay the same. Among people who voted Leave in the referendum these numbers remain broadly the same: 45% would like to see an increase, 40% say that the numbers should stay as they are and just 15% would like to see them reduced.
- Only a fifth of people (22%) would like the number of international students coming to study at Britain’s universities to be reduced, less than the 24% who would be happy for them to increase. The majority (54%, including 50% of Leave voters) would rather the numbers stayed the same. Students made up over a quarter of immigration flows to the UK last year .
- Most people (52%) would be happy for the number of people joining immediate family in the UK to remain the same. 13% think it should be increased while 35% would prefer it reduced.
- People are less positive about low-skilled workers moving to the UK, however: while four in ten (38%) would be happy for numbers to stay the same (31%) or increase (7%), six in ten (62%) would prefer the numbers to be reduced.
Consulting the public should form part of a comprehensive immigration review that takes a 360-degree look at all aspects of immigration policy – different types of immigration, policy options and their impacts, the staffing needs of business and public services and the pressures that rapid population change can place on local communities. More effective measures are needed to ease some of those pressures – on housing, school places and health services – through a migration impacts fund that is well-resourced and is seen to make a difference to frontline services in the areas that need some help.
Immigration reform must start to restore public trust. Instead of promises that can’t be kept or reactive crackdowns, it should engage with public concerns and respond with sensible, evidence-based policies that balance control and efforts to manage pressures, with openness to the immigration that is good for our economy and society.
It should also look at the resources needed to manage immigration well. The process of Brexit – for example sorting-out the status of more than 3 million EU nationals living in the UK – will place increased demands on the resources of the Home Office. This will mean more work for a department that has already been subject to cuts and is committed to make borders and immigration self-funding. We recommend that central government instead invests in a system that is fit for purpose, given the increased strain that Brexit will place up on it. For an issue of such high public salience, and one where confidence in the system is so low, it is hard to see the taxpayer taking significant issue with an increase to the £28 per head we spend each year on border control, if the extra funding would deliver a system in which they could have confidence.
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will have a significant impact on our approach to immigration. The kind of Brexit we get will have a decisive influence on what any new immigration policy will look like. But as well as bringing challenges, the Brexit shake-up could be an opportunity to get immigration policy right – to restore trust in a system that works, and public consent for the immigration that we have.