Weighing up the costs and benefits of specific migrant groups
There is clearly a deep social divide in people’s overall assessments of immigration. These figures, however, relate to the perceived impact of immigration in the abstract – it is not clear who respondents have in mind when making these overall assessments, or how consistent this mental image is from one person to the next. This is important, because previous research has established that the public have widely differing views of different migrant groups (Ford et al., 2012), and tend to over-estimate the prominence of the
groups they like least (Blinder, 2013).
In Table 5.4 we show the results of more clearly defined questions about the costs and benefits of specific migrant groups. We began by asking the following:
I would like you to think about people who come to work in Britain from other countries that are part of the European Union. Do you think the benefits these people bring, for example through working and paying taxes, outweigh the costs they bring, for example through pressures on housing and services, or do the costs outweigh the benefits?
We asked similar questions about “people who come to work in Britain from other countries that are outside the EU”, “international students from outside the European Union” and “husbands and wives coming from other countries to join their spouses who live in Britain”.
Overall views of the impact of these different migrant groups vary, though the general tendency is to take a negative view. Assessments of student migrants are the most positive: 35 per cent believe the benefits they bring to Britain outweigh the costs, 34 per cent feel the costs outweigh the benefits and 23 per cent feel the costs and benefits are about the same. Public views about spousal reunion are the most negative; only 14 per cent feel spousal reunion migration brings greater benefits than costs, while 57 per cent believe their costs outweigh the benefits.
Views about the costs and benefits of labour migration fall in between these two extremes, but are also negative on balance. Only around a fifth of people feel labour migration is of net benefit to Britain, another fifth feel the costs and benefits are about equal, while a clear majority feel Britain loses more than it gains from such migration. Views about labour migration from inside the EU (which is largely unrestricted) and from outside the EU (which is more tightly regulated) are largely identical. This may reflect general hostility to labour migration, regardless of its source, as well as low awareness of the different policy regimes that regulate migration inside and outside the EU. Previous research has shown that a majority of the public regard highly qualified professional migrants as valuable to Britain (Ford et al., 2012; Ford, 2012) and under the current points system most labour migrants from outside the EU will fall into this category.
These findings suggest that the government’s policies to introduce minimum income requirements for residents looking to sponsor relatives to come to the UK are in line with public views in this area – and may help to assuage public concerns about the costs of spousal reunion. But government policy will only reassure the public if they are aware of it; widespread public ignorance about the much longer established ‘points system’ and the different migration regimes that relate to EU and non-EU citizens suggest this may be an uphill struggle for the government. To explore awareness of the current system governing migration we asked:
Please tell me whether you think the following statement is true or false. There is a limit on the number of work permits the government issues each year to migrants coming to Britain from outside the EU who want to come and work in Britain. Most of these permits are reserved for those with better qualifications and English language skills.
Under half (45 per cent) thought this statement was “true” (the correct answer). A similar proportion (42 per cent) thought it was false, and 14 per cent said they did not know.
As Table 5.5 shows, there is a clear relationship between people’s policy awareness and their views about the costs and benefits to Britain of labour migrants from outside the EU. The first column shows the views of those who knew the answer to our question about how migration from outside the EU is governed, the second shows those who answered it incorrectly, and the third those who said they did not know. Those who are aware of the points system are much more positive than the other groups about the contribution that labour migrants make; 27 per cent think that the benefits of their migration outweigh the costs (compared with 13 per cent of those who answered incorrectly), and a further 23 per cent think the costs and benefits are about equal. Although
25 per cent think the costs of labour migration from outside the EU are “a lot greater than the benefits”, this compares with 39 per cent of those who gave the incorrect answer to our question about how labour migration is governed. We should not read too much into this relationship, as it could be driven in part by factors like education – highly educated respondents are both more knowledgeable about policy and more positive about immigration. Despite these limitations, the relationship does suggest that greater knowledge of Britain’s restrictive points system may encourage more positive views of the migrants admitted under this regime.
Table 5.6 shows how people’s views of specific migrant groups relate to their overall views about immigration. To do this, we put people into one of four groups, depending on their answers to the two questions about the economic and social impact of immigration on Britain shown in Table 5.1. According to this classification, around a third of the population (34 per cent) have positive views about immigration, a fifth (17 per cent) have neutral ones, just under a third (30 per cent) have somewhat negative views and a fifth (20 per cent) have very negative views. The rows then show their views about the relative costs and benefits to Britain of the specific groups of migrants we have already considered. Two things are immediately apparent. Firstly, there is a broad consensus over the relative merits of the different specific migrant groups, irrespective of a person’s general views about immigration. Students are seen as being of the most benefit to Britain, and spousal reunion migrants of the most cost, with labour migrants (regardless of origin) falling in between. Secondly, overall assessments about the impact of immigration strongly predict views about specific migrant groups. The liberal third of the population who see immigration in general as positive for Britain are extremely positive about student migration (which 51 per cent see as being of benefit and only 10 per cent as being a cost, a net benefit score of +41), somewhat positive about EU and non-EU labour migration (38 and 35 per cent see each group as being of benefit, with net benefit scores of +8 and +6 respectively), and mildly negative about spousal reunion (21 per cent think it benefits Britain, with a net benefit score of -12). Those who have neutral overall assessments of migration are mildly positive about the benefits of students (36 per cent see them as benefiting Britain, with a net benefit score of +11), but are negative about the other migrant groups. Those who have negative overall assessments about the impact of migration, around half of the population and split in the final two columns of the table between the somewhat negative and the strongly negative, believe the costs of all four specific migrant groups always outweigh the benefits, typically by lopsided margins. The intensity gap observed in general attitudes to immigration is visible again here – those who are positive about immigration in general regard three of the four migrant groups as being modestly beneficial for Britain; those who are negative about immigration regard all four migrant groups as very costly for Britain.
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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