The Cabinet is debating a choice over whether relaxing some immigration restrictions could help the economy to grow, while other Cabinet voices prioritise cutting overall numbers. New results from the Immigration Attitudes Tracker, published by Ipsos and British Future, shows that the public would give ‘pragmatic permission’ for a balanced approach, including relaxation of immigration controls for people coming to fill some roles, such as in agriculture, health and social care.
For immigration overall, public support for reducing immigration remains at its lowest level since the tracker survey began in 2015. While four in ten people (42%) want immigration to be reduced, more people would prefer it not to be reduced – either remaining at current levels (26%) or increasing (24%).
More than twice as many people would increase rather than decrease migration for people coming to the UK to work as seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers, care workers, doctors and nurses. More than half the public want more doctors and nurses from overseas; 45% want more fruit-pickers and 44% more care workers. Fewer than one in five support reducing immigration to any of these roles (1).
A third of the public also support increased immigration to fill staff shortages in hospitality (34%) and construction (32%), with a further third preferring to keep immigration levels for these jobs as they are now. Less than a quarter of people support reducing immigration for construction labourers (21%) and restaurant and catering staff (23%).
Migration to study at UK universities – which Home Secretary Suella Braverman has recently suggested she would like to reduce – is also popular with the public at current levels. Only one in five (21%) would reduce international student numbers while two-thirds would prefer numbers to stay the same (42%) or increase (25%). Only 29% of Conservative supporters support reducing student migration.
The findings reflect the gradual warming of public attitudes to immigration since the run-up to the EU referendum. The latest findings show that more people feel that immigration has had a positive effect on Britain (46%) than a negative effect (29%). The Ipsos research has tracked public attitudes to immigration since 2015: its first February 2015 survey found that only 35% were positive while 41% were negative.
Few people are aware of this positive shift in attitudes, however. Only 10% of respondents felt that the general public’s views on immigration had become more positive over the last few years, while 54% felt that people had become more negative about immigration.
The research finds the public divided over the government’s controversial Rwanda asylum scheme, with 21% strongly opposed and 21% strongly supportive. Overall, 40% say they support the scheme and 33% say they are opposed.
However, most of the public (52%), including 43% of Conservative supporters, do not think the Rwanda scheme is likely to succeed in reducing the number of people coming to the UK to seek asylum without permission. Just over a third of the public (36%) think the scheme is likely to reduce the number of people coming to the UK to seek asylum without permission.
Only a quarter of the public (25%) and a minority of Conservative supporters too (38%) think the Rwanda scheme is likely to offer value for money. A majority of the public (55%) think it is unlikely to offer value for money.
Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future said:
“Liz Truss and Suella Braverman have pragmatic permission from the public to welcome more overseas workers to fill labour and skills gaps and help economic growth. That’s because overall numbers matter less to the public now: their priority is that immigration is controlled, rather than reduced.
“They inherit a less heated immigration debate as a legacy of Boris Johnson’s ‘control not reduce’ approach. This asserted UK control over migration policy, by ending free movement, but allowed immigration for work and study to increase.
“The debate about asylum and Channel crossings is more polarised. Most people want something to be done about Channel crossings. But there is no public majority in support of the Rwanda scheme as the answer: most people think it will be ineffective and a waste of money.”
Gideon Skinner, Research Director at Ipsos, said:
”Public attitudes remain more nuanced on immigration than people might expect, with no blanket views on either side. For example, while there is little demand for increases in immigration overall, there is support for allowing more workers across a range of sectors where the public sees a need, while dissatisfaction with the number of channel crossings is combined with sympathy for the refugees themselves.
“This regular tracking research helps us understand these views and how they are changing – as well as highlighting misperceptions among the public themselves. In particular, most people think their fellow citizens have become more negative towards immigration over the last few years but in reality attitudes have become more positive since before the Brexit referendum.”
Main image by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash