So what should we do? Views about migration policy
We have found the same deep and uneven divide in general and specific views of migrants. A third of the public see immigration as moderately beneficial in general, and sees student and labour migration as valuable for the country. Around half regards the impact of immigration as negative, and all specific forms of immigration as being costly for Britain. How does this social divide translate into views about the specific policies that politicians of all parties must formulate to address public concerns and bridge this divide in attitudes? We focus here on the issue of migrant access to the welfare state, which was a highly salient part of the public debate about immigration when the survey was conducted in 2013. At that time there was intensive discussion about the consequences of the forthcoming lifting of restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migration to Britain on 1st January 2014, and concern about ‘benefit tourism’ – the worry that large numbers of migrants from these poorest EU countries would be attracted to Britain by the offer of state welfare benefits. Currently there is little evidence that benefit provision encourages migrant inflows or imposes significant costs on the British state, and several academic analyses of the topic have concluded that migrants are not a drain on welfare resources as they are less likely to claim benefits than native born Britons, and more likely to work (Vargas-Silva, 2013; Dustmann and Frattini, 2013). Despite this, anxieties about the issue are widely held, prompting intense discussion about policy reforms to restrict migrant access to benefits. This is more difficult to achieve with regards to EU migrants, as curbs on the provision of benefits risks falling foul of EU law defining the rights of workers moving across borders (although the extent of these rights is still being debated).
The salience of the welfare benefits issue to the public became clear when we were developing the immigration questions for the survey. One of the new questions we tested asked people about what they perceived to be migrants’ main motives for coming to Britain. Initially we offered as possible responses the motives recorded in official statistics – work (split into EU and non-EU), study, spousal reunion and asylum. However, when testing the question prior to the main survey we found that many people favoured a motive that was not on our list: the desire to claim welfare benefits. We decided to carry out a survey experiment to test whether prompting for the issue of ‘welfare tourism’ influenced the responses we got. We did this by randomly splitting the sample in half and giving one half the list of motives for immigration based on official statistics (recording welfare benefits as the main motive if this was spontaneously offered) and the other half the same list with “welfare benefits” added as one of the response options. The wording of our question was:
Migrants come to Britain for many reasons and from many places. Which one of the reasons on the card do you think is the most common reason for migration to Britain?
The options shown on the card, and the results obtained, are shown in Table 5.7. Three important findings emerge. Firstly, and in line with previous research (Blinder, 2013), there is a large gap between the motives most frequently recorded in official statistics and those which loom largest in public opinion. International Passenger Survey statistics record study (176,000), work within the EU (129,000) and work from outside the EU (43,000) as the largest sources of long term migration (defined as for over 12 months) (Office for National Statistics, 2014). However, students are far less salient in the public image of migration: only 7 to 8 per cent of our respondents named study as the most common motive for migration depending on which version of the question was asked. Around half named labour migration as the main motive – most pointing to workers moving within the EU (40 to 43 per cent) rather than arriving from outside the EU (10 to 13 per cent). Two motives loom far larger in the public imagination than they do in the statistics: asylum was named as the main motive by 10 to 17 per cent, although the most recent asylum statistics show inflows of 24,000, a small fraction of those for student and labour migration. Welfare also featured heavily as a motive – 8 per cent named it spontaneously when it was not listed as an option for them to choose, and 24 per cent chose it as the main motive for migration when it was offered with the other choices. Secondly, perceptions about migrants’ primary motives are closely tied to people’s views about the effects of immigration. A large majority of those who are positive about immigration, and a modest majority of those who are neutral, see work as the main motive for migration, particularly workers moving from elsewhere in the EU. Those with negative views of migration are much more likely to see migrants as motivated by a desire to claim benefits, or to claim asylum in Britain. Thirdly, concerns about ‘benefit tourism’ are strongly concentrated among those groups with the most negative views about migrants. Only a small minority of those who are neutral or positive see this as the primary motive for migrants, even when it is listed as a response category. But the issue looms large for those with strongly negative views of immigration: 22 per cent spontaneously named it as the main motive for migration, while when it was included on the list of response categories, over half (55 per cent) picked it, overwhelming all the other options on offer.
These findings show that different sections of the British population have very different mental pictures of migrants: those who are positive about immigration see them as driven by a desire to work, while those who are most negative see them as primarily attracted by a desire to claim benefits.
Many people clearly regard migrant access to welfare as an important part of the immigration debate, but how do they think the state should respond? To assess this we asked people the following question:
Thinking about migrants from other countries in the European Union who are working and paying taxes in Britain. How soon, if at all, should they be able to access the same welfare benefits as British citizens?
Half the sample were randomly assigned this question about EU migrants, whose rights to British welfare benefits have been the focus of recent debate, and the other half were asked about migrants from outside the EU, whose access to welfare was already more restricted and who have not featured so prominently in discussion. The options shown on the card, and the results obtained, are shown in Table 5.8. It shows that the divide in views about the overall impact of immigration drives an important divide in relation to policy responses. If we split the policy options on offer into two categories: ‘open’ (granting migrants access to benefits in a year or less) and ‘restrictive’ (restricting access to benefits for five years or more) we find that the positive third of the population favours an open approach by a large margin; the proportion who favour an open approach outweigh those who favour a more restrictive one by some 38 percentage points. Meanwhile, the negative half favours a restrictive approach; among those who are strongly negative 63 per cent favour a restrictive approach, and just 18 per cent an open one. Those with neutral views are evenly split.
We also find some willingness to adopt a more liberal approach towards EU migrants than to those from outside the EU – the balance of opinion overall is slightly in favour of open policies for EU migrants, and restrictive policies for non-EU migrants. This pattern is replicated among all the sub-groups of our sample, suggesting the notion that EU migrants have a right to somewhat more favourable treatment is widely shared. The problem for policy makers
is that a large majority of the public would favour a more restrictive approach to EU migrants than is currently possible. Even in the pro-migration third, a majority favours imposing a qualification period of at least a year, while in the more restrictive sections of the public the majority preference is for a waiting time of three
years or more. Currently, EU migrants can access most benefits within a matter of months,
and it would be difficult to square the restrictions favoured by most respondents with the demands of EU law.
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”.
Bases for Table 5.2 are as follows:
Bases for Table 5.3 are as follows:
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?”
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”.
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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