5 May 2021

Thinking fast and slow: how will recovery affect attitudes to immigration?

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British Future's Director of Research and Relationships, Heather Rolfe, examines how patterns of migration to the UK could change in the months and years to come, and what that could mean for public attitudes to immigration.

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Migration patterns, driven by economic, political and personal circumstances, are in a constant state of flux. The pandemic saw seismic changes to UK migration with figures out last week showing dramatic falls in net migration between March and June 2020, as EU migrants decided to leave the UK.

We know what has previously mattered to the public and how that has affected past debates. But recovery and new policy will lead to new patterns of migration which have the potential to change attitudes and debate. The national experience of living through the pandemic will, in itself, have influenced attitudes and refocused attention away from Brexit related disputes.

Attitudes will also be affected by economic and social factors, whose course cannot be easily predicted. As we come out of lockdown, it’s time to consider the alternative scenarios and how those with a stake in immigration policy might respond.

Slow economic growth will mean a re-balancing of high and low skilled migration

As we start to emerge from the pandemic, employers face many challenges but recruiting staff probably won’t be one of them. There are currently 813,000 fewer pay-rolled employees than in March 2020; roughly 1.7 million people are unemployed and some of the 11.4 million furloughed workers are likely to join their ranks.

If recovery is slow, employers will be able to draw for longer on the unemployed to fill vacancies, especially at lower levels. Settled and returning migrants who lost their jobs in hard-hit sectors such as hospitality, construction and retail will be among new hires. But new migrants will need to meet the criteria for a skilled visa and many of the jobs they held under free movement will not meet the skills threshold.

Employers have said they will look to recruit more local applicants should migrant numbers fall. Those in sectors including hospitality , social care and construction say they want to attract more school and college leavers, as well as the unemployed, through improving career pathways. The public supports this aim, expressing concern that free movement has reduced young people’s opportunities. But the challenges can’t be under-estimated. Jobs with low pay, low status and poor working conditions have failed to attract sufficient British workers long before free movement.

Demand for migrants isn’t just fuelled by labour shortages and previous recessions suggest that sectors are affected differently. Demand for highly skilled people may be largely unaffected in sectors such as science and medicine, engineering, higher education and banking because requirements are often niche. Under the new immigration system, the removal of a cap in numbers and a ‘fast-track’ system could even lead to an increase in numbers of highly skilled migrants.

This may attract some public support, with half of the public saying they would support an increase in the number of highly skilled migrants. Many of these new migrants will be from outside of the EU, raising the potential for racism to have a greater influence over migration sentiment than when most migration was from the EU. Studies suggest that skill level tends to override ethnic preferences, but the origins of new, skilled migrants will attract attention from commentators.

New migrants on skilled visas are also more likely to be older, to settle and to have children than the EU migrants who came under free movement. This may ease concerns about churn in communities resulting from short-term mobility. While they will make use of public services, including housing and education, their relative affluence may reduce concerns centred on contribution to the public purse.

Fast recovery will put pressure on the new points-based system

If growth is rapid and unemployment falls, the supply of workers to lower skilled roles in key sectors won’t be enough to meet employers’ needs. Unable to fill vacancies, employers are likely to call for flexibilities to the points-based system to allow for recruitment of lower skilled migrants. This will lead to pressure on the Government to relax restrictions which currently allow work visas only for jobs at or above RQF level 3 – broadly equivalent to ‘A’ level – excluding roughly 1 in 3 jobs.

While a fast recovery would be welcomed, HA A high demand for work visas and relaxation of new immigration rules would impact on public attitudes. Over time, polls have found public support for low-skilled migration to be reduced or capped. There are caveats to this though: research also suggests public support for migration to fill essential roles in services such as health and social care and in occupations like construction and agriculture.

Relaxation of rules as early as 2021 or 2022 will also lead some Leave voters to feel let down and to argue that control had not been achieved. This might be averted through clarity from policy makers about changes to the points-based system, and their public benefit, ideally backed up by opinion polls, or involving forms of public consultation.

Migration isn’t a numbers game

The number of new and returning migrants will depend on the pace of recovery but the public is less concerned about numbers and more about control. People care about contribution as much as skill; and they care about change and integration in their local community, not just national trends.

The pandemic may have reinforced these values as the public witnessed the contribution and personal sacrifices made by migrant workers. Research by British Future and the Kings Policy Unit found 7 in 10 people agreeing that the pandemic shows how important migration is to staffing essential services like the NHS.

The pandemic may also have changed attitudes towards ‘low-skilled’ workers, with the same study finding 2 in 3 people agreeing that ‘the coronavirus crisis has made me value the role of ‘low-skilled’ workers, in essential services such as care homes, transport and shops, more than before’. It will not have gone unnoticed that many of those workers are migrants. This both extends and reinforces the gradual warming of attitudes over the last five years.

New debates for new migration

If patterns of migration change as the Government intended towards more highly skilled migration from outside of the EU, and lead to longer-term settlement, we can expect the debate to change quite significantly. Some of the more negative narratives around temporary migration creating churn in communities, and about non-English speakers, may lose traction. However, public concern may refocus from low-skilled to highly-skilled migration if employers are not clear about why they recruit migrants. Substantial numbers of Hong Kong citizens may take up the offer of a new life in Britain, with public response likely to depend on the number of new arrivals and their successful integration into British society. As these trends make it likely that non-EU migration will increase, and EU migration fall, civil society and equality organisations need to be prepared for race becoming more prominent in immigration debates.

More positively, a stronger appreciation of the role and sacrifices made by migrants during lockdown may lead to debates on how their lives might be improved. Employers and industry bodies may feel obliged to offer better opportunities for migrants stuck in low-skilled work, including through help to improve their English and gain qualifications. We might also see a greater willingness among schools, colleges, community and voluntary services to collaborate over shared goals of integrating migrants and their families.

Finally, the news that 4.5 million EU migrants have applied for settled status sends out a strong public message that many who came under free movement are here to stay. The most toxic debates portrayed EU migrants as interested only in earning money to send home. That so many choose Britain as the place to settle and build their future lives should in itself inspire a more positive immigration debate.

Heather Rolfe is Director of Research and Relationships at British Future.