Immigration is often among the most heated of public debates. Lord Ashcroft’s new report, published today, captures why immigration is such a challenging public issue, for governments of any party, and offers clues too as to how to engage the public constructively in the choices Britain makes about immigration, writes Sunder Katwala.
Few people now claim that the debate is off limits, Lord Ashcroft reports. The time of worrying that people could not talk about immigration is over for most, as a glance at any newspaper might confirm. And on an issue where debate can be quite polarised, we should perhaps be encouraged by Ashcroft’s conclusion that “Public opinion about immigration is certainly more nuanced than is sometimes supposed.”
About one in six people (16%), he finds, are “universally hostile” to immigration, while one in 10 are overwhelmingly positive. This leaves three-quarters of people who do not fit into either of those camps. A debate between those who want to shut the borders entirely or let everybody in, especially when it turns into a shouting match, fails to engage the majority in the middle ground.
I was asked to address one session of Lord Ashcroft’s day-long deliberative event, to set out one half of the story: how Britain benefits from immigration. I talked about the doctors and nurses who, like my mum and dad from India and Ireland, came here to work in the NHS; foreign students who pay to study at our universities and make up the biggest group of migrants to the UK; entrepreneurs who create jobs; and how it was right to uphold our proud tradition of protecting refugees, from those who fled Hitler to Afghan interpreters today. I acknowledged that there are real pressures too: there are few benefits of immigration if we don’t have integration too. So we should be clear about the conditions for making immigration work fairly – and welcome migrants who want to work hard, speak English, pay into the system and contribute positively to our society.
Lord Ashcroft writes that this pitch was warmly received: “most participants accepted that these benefits of immigration are real.” They would like this vision of a confident and inclusive Britain to become a reality. But it was also too idealised; inspiring stories of the successes feel too rose-tinted unless combined with effective efforts to get a grip on our dysfunctional immigration system and to ensure we have a fair system which rewards contribution.
So Sir Andrew Green of Migration Watch, asked to present reasons to be sceptical about immigration, struck a chord with his concerns about population change. If he speaks effectively to fears and anxieties about immigration, the report suggests his audience were frustrated at a lack of constructive solutions, particularly on integration. They were also keen to avoid bringing race into the debate: a projection that the “white British” could cease to be a majority in half a century was dismissed by many as neither relevant nor useful.
Ashcroft’s polling for the report captures how most people recognise both pressures and benefits from immigration. Six out of 10 see the disadvantages currently outweighing the benefits, but people’s most common personal experience of migrants is in being treated by doctors and nurses in the NHS (83%), while 36% perceive a negative impact on job prospects for them or their family, and 24% say the same about access to housing or public services. 36% say the scale of immigration has changed their local area for the worse, while 37% disagree. The poll shows that migrants are seen as hard-working, and as the opposite too. The most commonly cited benefit (49%) is that migrants do jobs that need doing but which British people don’t want to do; yet the biggest concern about immigrants, cited by 62%, is that migrants claim benefits and use services without contributing.
The government, then, is expected to get a grip on an effective and fair system, capable of delivering choices that reflect Britain’s interests and values. And that will not be easy. A consistent theme of the report is a deep lack of trust, and scepticism about statistics from any source.
For those who want to secure the benefits of immigration, the challenge is one of engaging with the public’s reasonable anxieties and finding constructive solutions that are fair to citizens and migrants alike. Dismissing sceptical voices as wrong-headed or inherently prejudiced is unlikely to get very far at all.
Immigration sceptics face a different challenge: it is no longer a question of demanding that the issue is put on the agenda. The debate is fully joined and people will now be asking who has constructive answers that can work, economically and socially, for the Britain of today.
The issue of immigration has typically driven a wedge between those whose instinct is to embrace change and those who find it deeply unsettling. This report suggests there may be potential for more common ground than we expect, once we recognise that those on both sides share a responsibility to ensure we make our diverse society work.
Sunder Katwala is director of British Future.