27 January 2020

The Australian points system: what does the public think?

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The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) releases its report today on the ‘Australian style points-based system’ that will form the backbone of the Government’s immigration policy after freedom of movement ends on 31 December.

The Australian points-based system has long been well-known and broadly popular with the public – who take it as shorthand for a system that offers control and selectivity while admitting migrants to work in the UK. When our National Conversation of Immigration discussed migration with citizens’ panels in sixty towns and cities around the UK, it was mentioned in every meeting – often by people who had some knowledge of the Australian system via a friend or family member who had worked there. Far fewer had heard of the UK Government’s (now abandoned) net migration target, its headline policy at the time.

To turn a catchy slogan into a workable policy, however, Boris Johnson’s Government will need to make decisions about the specifics of what such a system would look like in practice: deciding which attributes, qualities and qualifications merit more points that others.

So what does the public think? New, nationally-representative research by ICM for British Future, to be published in a new report next month, asked people what they think a points-based system should prioritise. From 10-13 January ICM asked 2,305 GB adults for their opinions on a range of immigration-related issues: including what attributes should earn the most points for prospective migrants to the UK; and which flows of immigration the public would prefer to see reduced, increased or to remain as they are now.

In many areas there is broad consensus for a more welcoming approach, including for high-skilled migration, students, NHS staff and seasonal workers too. That sentiment is balanced by a desire to reduce lower-skilled migration; though with softer views on those coming to do jobs in sectors with a lot of vacancies; or socially-important jobs such as care workers.

It is striking that the immigration debate has shifted considerably in the last 3-4 years.  What was a top-of-mind issue for a large swathe of the electorate in the 2015 election and 2016 referendum has now fallen back to being the ninth-highest priority for voters.  If the temperature on immigration has dropped, does this offer an opportunity for a more constructive debate about the choices that now lie ahead?

Most people are ‘balancers’ on immigration, wanting to secure its benefits and manage its pressures. The public would be happy for many flows of immigration to increase or remain the same, according to our new ICM research: 79% would prefer the number of high-skilled EU workers to remain the same or increase; 65% for seasonal workers; 77% for high-skilled non-EU workers; and 64% international students. A slim majority (51%) would reduce low-skilled EU migration, with a third of people (31%) feeling it should remain at the current rate.

The attributes that most of the public think should earn a high number of points in the new immigration system are being high-skilled (63%); having an occupation needed by the NHS (61%); and having skills or experience in a sector where there are high levels of vacancies (44%). Four-in-ten people think that good spoken and written English (41%), a clean criminal record (42%) and an existing job offer (41%) should all attract high points too.

Less important was someone being on a high salary in their current job overseas, with just 14% saying it should earn high points and 17% saying it should earn no points at all. Similarly, having £5,000 in savings was seen as meriting high points by just 13%, but no points at all by 14%. Only 20% of people consider ‘Taking a job in the UK with over £30,000 per year salary’ important enough to warrant a high number of points – suggesting PM Boris Johnson may have been wise in saying he would not support a £30k salary cap.

Voters across the political spectrum were broadly in the same place in terms of the categories they valued most and least. Conservatives were more likely than Labour voters to attribute high points to speaking good English (Con 48%/Lab 36%); having a clean criminal record (Con 48%/Lab 37%); being highly skilled (Con 69%/Lab 59%) and having an existing job offer (Con 46%/Lab 38%). Labour voters were somewhat more likely to give high points for ‘committing to work in a region that needs more workers, eg Scotland’ (Lab 29%/Con 24%) or ‘taking a job as a care worker” (Lab 22%/Con 13%) – though 55% of Conservatives still think working in the care sector should warrant medium-or-high points.

We asked people about specific jobs and industry sectors too, and whether coming to work in them should earn people more points. As mentioned above, ‘Having an occupation needed by the NHS’ was one of the most popular responses, with 61% saying it should attract high points. After that, ‘Taking a UK role as a teacher’ was also important to the public, with around six-in-ten people (58%) saying that should earn people high (18%) or medium (40%) points.  Taking up a job as a care worker fared similarly, with 18% saying it should earn people high points and 35% medium points.

The finance and hospitality sectors fared less well: only 8% felt that a job in either sector should earn high points, with 20% saying a job in finance should earn people no points at all towards a visa (and 19% saying the same for hospitality).

The MAC will offer its view on the points-based system in a report later today (Tues 28 Jan). Other voices – from politics, business and civil society – will have their say too. But a successful immigration policy, while it needs to be workable for the economy, must also secure public confidence too – so we hope these findings on public attitudes to the points-based system are a useful input to the debate as the government looks to shape a new approach to immigration.

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