Immigration, Conservative Government and Public Opinion


Speaking at the IAS meeting at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester with Damian Green MP, Shadow Immigration Minister, Keith Best, Chief Executive of IAS, called for a future Conservative Government to seek sensible solutions to migration issues and not base policy just on public opinion.

“The evidence about UK attitudes to immigration from the Transatlantic Trends Immigration Survey 2008 shows us the magnitude of the problem and the poor quality of debate that results from prejudice being pre-eminent over the truth about migration” he said.

“It points out that the British public has become increasingly worried about immigration over the last decade2. Four key issues have dominated the public debate about migration in the UK in recent years: The arrival of over 1 million workers from the new EU Member States; intense scrutiny of the integration of the UK’s Muslim communities following the 7th July London bombings; a series of media scandals around ‘illegal’ immigration and border control; and growing resentment of the perceived burden migrants place on public resources, particularly social housing.

“Transatlantic Trends Immigration (TTI) surveyed public opinion on immigration in the US and six European Union (EU) countries: France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and the UK. The survey was conducted by TNS Opinion, which interviewed approximately 1000 adults in each country in September 2008. The British public is more negative about immigration than opinion in all those other countries.

“So what should we do about it? Does it matter? Using false impressions on which to base immigration policy is flawed logic yet MPs reflect the view of their constituents and the Government will reflect public pinion. Therein lies the tension in immigration policy: to do what is right and in Britain’s best interests or to do what is popular. For too long we have seen measures introduced more for the delectation of the readers of the Mail and the Express rather than a proper analysis of the problem followed by sustainable policies. It is appalling that our own Prime Minister should have given an adopted official campaign slogan for the BNP “British jobs for British workers.”

“The British Social Attitudes Survey recorded a 10% increase in hostility towards immigrants between 1995 and 2003.

“What are the facts? There is now overwhelming evidence of the economic benefits of migration. That is also the view of the public: over three quarters (77%) agree that migrants “help to fill jobs where there are shortages of workers” and almost as many (73%) agree that “migrants are hard workers.”

“We live in a globalised world and both the European Commission and the British Government are now talking more about the benefits of circular migration – people coming for a short time, enhancing their skills and then returning to their country of origin. This is the current trend. Look at all the Eastern Europeans who came after their countries acceded to the EU who have now gone home. New research by IPPR – Shall we stay or shall we go: remigration trends among Britain’s immigrants – shows that more and more immigrants to this country are staying for a short time and then leaving. Over 190,000 non-British nationals left the UK in 2007.

“Across Europe short-term migration is a growing phenomenon: immigrants spending less than four years in the UK doubled between 1996 and 2007. Many of those leaving are highly skilled workers and former students. Indeed, the reason that many decide to stay from non-European Economic Area countries is the difficulty they encounter in returning. The greatest boost to circulatory migration would be to grant multiple visas which would overcome this problem. The Government is now intent on breaking the link between temporary migration (such as those coming for work) and permanent settlement, currently allowed after five years. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the majority of people surveyed do not back temporary migration programmes, in which migrant workers must leave the country after a defined period of time. They would prefer migrants to be given the chance to settle permanently in the UK. Nevertheless, there is overwhelming support for a Points Based System, especially to admit well-educated English speakers.

“All major political parties have as an aim the creation of public confidence in the immigration system – so opinion cannot be ignored. Clearly, one of the major issues is returns and removal of those who no longer have a legal right to remain. The other is the burden on public services, especially schooling and housing although these are very much local rather than national issues. Hitherto, these have been greater fears than that migrants are taking British workers’ jobs.

What the survey does show, however, is that people can change their minds about migration once they have access to the facts – 9% of those polled changed their minds from undecided to positive about immigration simply as a result of answering the questions. That, however, was not true of those who started with a negative attitude. Yet more than half (62%) think that migration is more of a problem than an opportunity and that there are too many migrants in the UK from outside Europe (56%). Of all the countries surveyed only Malta rated immigration a higher concern than Britain. People who live in areas with high concentrations of immigrants and people who work or socialize with immigrants tend to be more positive about immigration.

“There is more concern about illegal than legal migration but alarmingly many believe that the majority of migrants are in the UK illegally. It is also an age and education matter: the older and less educated you are the more you are likely to be anti-immigrant. What is most worrying is that 34% of respondents thought that “most immigrants are in the UK illegally” and a further 9% thought that there were “equal numbers of legal and illegal immigrants.” In fact, even using a high estimate of the number of illegal migrants in the UK, they make up less than a fifth of the immigrant population26. There is equal ignorance about the numbers of migrants in the UK: a Readers Digest/MORI poll found that on average the public estimated that 26% of the population belonged to an ethnic minority – the real figure was 7%. The European Social Survey 2002-3 asked respondents “Of every 100 people living in the UK, how many do you think were not born here?” 63% gave answers greater than 10 percent and 15% gave answers greater than 50 percent. The true figure at the time was around 8.3%.

“On asylum it is in Britain’s best interests for fair policies to be adopted in all EU member states on the basis of solidarity and burden sharing. The British public want these decisions taken at national level – the theme of the French President’s Pact set out last year, yet migration flows to Europe cannot be determined on a national basis. If the legacy of Empire and widespread use of the English language is a desire for people to come to the UK more than elsewhere then we have a vested interest in burden sharing as events at Calais make apparent. It also makes sense on non-asylum migration. If we are not careful we shall be left behind and our interests will be damaged. An EU ‘Blue Card’ scheme for highly-skilled workers, inspired by the US Green Card, was adopted by 24 Member States (not the UK) in May 2009.

“The message to any incoming Government must be that to act in isolation will damage Britain whereas to act in concert with agreed principles across Europe will ensure a fairer and more sustainable solution.”
from IAS

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