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Immigration

A nation divided?

  • This chapter delves into public opinions about the impact of immigration on Britain and how this colours people’s perceptions of specific migrant groups. What do people think is the best policy response to immigration and what are the key lessons for policymakers?

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    A large majority would like to see immigration reduced, but opinion is divided as to the impact immigration has on Britain’s economy and culture.

    31% think that immigration has been good for Britain’s economy, 47% think it has been bad while 20% think it has been neither good nor bad.

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    The most economically advantaged are more positive than the rest of the population about immigration.

    60% of graduates think immigration has benefited Britain economically, compared with 17% of those with no qualifications.

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    Different sections of the population have different mental pictures of migrants and the reasons they come
    to Britain.

    55% of those who have the most negative view of immigration think the main reason migrants come to Britain is to claim benefits. Only 7% of those who have the most positive view of immigration think this.

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    Different sections of the population have very different views about whether and when migrants should be allowed to access welfare benefits.

    37% think that EU migrants working and paying taxes in Britain should get the same benefits as British citizens immediately or after one year. 24% think they should have access after three years and 30% after five years or more.

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Introduction 

Immigration has been a contentious issue in Britain for most of the past fifteen years. Historically high rates of settlement in Britain have been accompanied by widespread public concern, leading voters to consistently name immigration as one of the top issues facing the country (Duffy and Frere-Smith, 2014). In an effort to respond to widespread public concern, the Conservative Party committed to reducing net migration to “tens of thousands” ahead of the 2010 general election, and has pursued a range of restrictive reforms in government in an effort to achieve this goal. These have included changes to the rules on student migration, limiting the educational options to foreign students and their employment options in Britain on graduation, changes to family reunion migration rules, new income requirements for those looking to bring dependants into the country, and changes to labour migration rules limiting the number of work permits issued to non-EEA workers looking to migrate to Britain (Gower and Hawkins, 2013; Robinson, 2013). 

Intense policy and enforcement activity brought an initial fall in migration inflows, but in the past year migrant arrivals have rebounded as migration from the EU, which the government has little power to restrict, has risen sharply (Office for National Statistics, 2014). At the same time, public concern about the issue has rebounded, reflecting not just the increased numbers but a renewed voter focus on this issue as anxieties about the economy have receded (Ipsos MORI, 2014). 

Polling over the past decade has consistently found that large majorities feel immigration levels are too high. The British Social Attitudes data are no exception to this trend. We asked:

Do you think the number of immigrants to Britain nowadays should be increased a lot, increased a little, remain the same as it is, reduced a little or reduced a lot? 

Immigration _PQ_1

In 2013, 77 per cent of people want immigration reduced “a little” or “a lot”, with 56 per cent wanting a large reduction. Both figures are up sharply on 1995 (when they stood at 63 and 39 per cent respectively) but are largely unchanged since 2008 (Ford et al., 2012). The British view that current immigration is too high is well established and stable. In this chapter, we delve deeper into public opinion to examine how the public perceive the economic and social impact of the largest wave of migration in British history, and how differing views about these impacts colour people’s perceptions of specific migrant groups and their motives. We then consider views about the best policy response to immigration, particularly in terms of access to benefits, and how these vary between groups. We conclude by drawing out the key lessons for policy makers, and the tension between responding to those with the most negative views, particularly in the context of the growth in support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and the risk of alienating voters with more pro-migration views. 

Notes
  1. Here we summarise people’s views about the economic and social impacts of migration (the two scales shown in Table 5.1). For each scale, those whose score was above the neutral point were rated “positive”, those whose score was equal to neutral were rated neutral, and those whose score was below the neutral point were rated “negative”.

  2. Bases for Table 5.2 are as follows:
    Immigration _T_notes _1

  3. Bases for Table 5.3 are as follows:
    Immigration _T_notes _2

  4. The question wording for international students read simply “overall do you think the benefits for Britain of international students from outside the European Union outweigh the costs they bring, or do the costs outweigh the benefits?”

  5. For this analysis we use a measure that combines people’s views about the economic and social impacts of migration (that is, the two measures shown in Table 5.1). Those whose average score on the two scales was above the neutral point were rated “positive”, those whose combined score was equal to neutral were rated neutral, those whose average score on both scales was equivalent to a somewhat negative score on each individual scale were rated “somewhat negative” and those whose average across the two scales was equivalent to strongly negative scores on both were rated “strongly negative”.

  6. In 1989, 7 per cent of British Social Attitudes respondents were graduates, and 44 per cent had no qualifications. Now graduates (25 per cent) outnumber those without any qualifications (20 per cent). Meanwhile, the proportion of people in professional and managerial jobs has increased from 35 to 37 per cent, accompanied by a drop from 37 to 29 per cent in the proportion in semi-skilled or unskilled manual work. 

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  • Notes
    1. Here we summarise people’s views about the economic and social impacts of migration (the two scales shown in Table 5.1). For each scale, those whose score was above the neutral point were rated “positive”, those whose score was equal to neutral were rated neutral, and those whose score was below the neutral point were rated “negative”.

    2. Bases for Table 5.2 are as follows:
      Immigration _T_notes _1

    3. Bases for Table 5.3 are as follows:
      Immigration _T_notes _2

    4. The question wording for international students read simply “overall do you think the benefits for Britain of international students from outside the European Union outweigh the costs they bring, or do the costs outweigh the benefits?”

    5. For this analysis we use a measure that combines people’s views about the economic and social impacts of migration (that is, the two measures shown in Table 5.1). Those whose average score on the two scales was above the neutral point were rated “positive”, those whose combined score was equal to neutral were rated neutral, those whose average score on both scales was equivalent to a somewhat negative score on each individual scale were rated “somewhat negative” and those whose average across the two scales was equivalent to strongly negative scores on both were rated “strongly negative”.

    6. In 1989, 7 per cent of British Social Attitudes respondents were graduates, and 44 per cent had no qualifications. Now graduates (25 per cent) outnumber those without any qualifications (20 per cent). Meanwhile, the proportion of people in professional and managerial jobs has increased from 35 to 37 per cent, accompanied by a drop from 37 to 29 per cent in the proportion in semi-skilled or unskilled manual work. 

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