21 December 2017

Open Europe today published a new report, “Beyond the Westminster Bubble: What people really think about immigration.”

In this paper – the first part of Open Europe’s Immigration Project – we set out to examine what the public really thinks about migration. Since the Leave vote in last year’s referendum, commentators and politicians have wrongly interpreted Brexit as a mandate simply to pull up the drawbridge. We found that people’s attitudes on immigration are far more nuanced and sophisticated than often is portrayed in political or media debate. In actual fact, the public support migration for specific jobs or of those who have key skills. And, contrary to what some have suggested, our evidence demonstrates that overall public attitudes towards immigration – and indeed Brexit – were not fuelled by racism or intolerance.

Open Europe combined a 4,000 person ICM poll across Great Britain with a series of focus groups in England conducted by Public First in the North East, North West, East Midlands, and West Midlands. Our results showed that the public want to see immigration controlled but that most people recognised both positive as well as negative aspects of immigration. The public also understood that migration both alleviates certain public policy issues and exacerbates them, and articulated that public policy issues have broader causes than just immigration.

The current immigration system faces a crisis of confidence with the Government’s net migration target dismissed as a “soundbite”. Brexit offers an opportunity to design new immigration policies that can command greater public support. While policy should be designed for the entire country, we found that Leave voters saw immigration as a more important issue facing the country than Remain voters. However, we found multiple areas of agreement between Leavers and Remainers. Our research provides an evidence base for a sensible conversation about post-Brexit immigration policy.

Key findings


  • The public had a clear preference for a system with greater controls on immigration over a simple reduction in numbers. 56% of the public agreed with “allowing immigrants to come to the UK as long as there are controls to make sure they will contribute to our society, economy and way of life”, versus 36% who preferred simply “reducing the numbers of people coming into the UK”. Even amongst Leave voters, a substantial minority (43%) chose control over reducing numbers. While immigration was an important driver of the Leave vote, it does not necessarily follow that all Leave voters support a highly restrictive immigration system.


  • There was little specific support for the Government’s target of net migration in the tens of thousands a year, but the public want numbers to come down. There is general support for reducing numbers but the public’s attachment to the “tens of thousands” net target appears to be based on the principle that “something is better than nothing”. Over half of respondents (53.9%) supported the target or thought it was not strict enough, but only 30% believed it was achievable. Even Remain voters were more likely to support the target than oppose it, by 38% to 27%. However, the target also attracts a strong degree of scepticism – focus groups participants saw it as a “soundbite,” and only three in ten poll respondents (30%) believed it is achievable. Altogether, a cap on numbers was less popular than a system which “allows immigrants to come and work, but restricts their access to benefits and public services”.


  • The public was far more concerned about a potential immigrant’s criminality than their race. Our poll found that factors such as race, religion or sexual orientation were by far the least important attributes of potential migrants for both Leave and Remain voters. Whether an immigrant has a criminal record was considered 10.7 times more important than their race and ethnic background, or 12.2 times more important than if they are from a Christian background. Of all the controls that could be put in place on immigration, there is overwhelming support for increased criminal background checks on those entering the UK, across both Leave and Remain voters – 80% of Leave voters and 73% of Remain voters believed that if such a policy existed, their concerns about immigration would be reduced. Equally, focus groups participants consistently mentioned increased background checks on new arrivals when asked about their ideal immigration system.


  • There was support for immigrants coming to the UK to work in specific roles, especially in socially-useful roles or where there is a skills shortage. Immigrants coming for every specific role we tested received a positive or neutral level of support from respondents. Only “general jobseeker” received net opposition. Public support seems more focused around whether roles are ‘socially useful,’ rather than a labour economist’s definition of high-skilled immigration. Care workers received slightly greater support (33% net positive) than entrepreneurs (27%) or computer programmers (27%). Bankers (1%) received comparable support to waiters (1%) and cleaners (0%). Doctors (61%) and nurses (57%) received strikingly positive levels of support – but at a comparable level to any occupation in which the UK has a “skill shortage” (58%). We also found that respondents rated whether a potential immigrants’ job is in an area where the UK has a skills shortage to be nearly six times (5.92) more important than if they are highly paid.


  • There was overwhelming support for only allowing people into the UK who have specific job offers (71% vs 15% disagree). This policy received overwhelming support from both Leave (81%) and Remain voters (68%). There is also a Leave – Remain consensus on allowing high-skilled migrants but restricting low-skilled immigration (75% support from Leavers and 65% from Remainers).


  • A majority backed restricting immigrants’ access to welfare (74% support from Leavers and 63% from Remainers), among our poll respondents. Focus groups also consistently and without prompting called for reform of the welfare system to encourage UK unemployed people into work. They see a “soft” welfare system as contributing to the UK’s reliance on immigration. Our poll data also paints a nuanced picture of how restrictions on immigrants’ access to welfare should be managed, with respondents clearly distinguishing between ‘automatic’ and ‘earned’ welfare and social support.


  • Immigration was not viewed as a discrete policy issue. Many respondents understood that certain public policy problems (e.g. a shortage of affordable housing, pressure on the NHS) are to a degree exacerbated or shaped by immigration, but also perceived stresses on public services as complicated and more than just a consequence of immigration. A greater share of the public believed pressures on GP services and social care are explained by government decisions and other factors than the effects of immigration. Respondents believed the government should pull other policy levers, including skills training, house building, and investment in services, and said that this would reduce their concerns about the impact of immigration.


  • The public recognised by a narrow majority that immigration has both benefits and drawbacks. When asked to consider the impact of immigration on health services, 53% of respondents saw that migration both benefited the NHS and added to strains on it. We also found awareness of both positive and negative effects of immigration on the UK labour market. When asked whether they agree more with the idea that immigration “keeps some wages down, so some people earn less,” or that it “helps drive economic growth for the UK, which benefits everyone,” the greatest share of the public agreed equally with both (30%). However, focus groups reflected a strong belief that immigration was a key feature of an unfair labour market. In particular, that high immigration has held down wages and reduced training opportunities for local workers.


  • The public did not strongly support removing students from the immigration numbers. We found net public support for students coming to the UK (21%) but less support than for teachers (30%) or IT/computer programmers (27%). We also found respondents divided on whether students should be exempted from immigration controls with 36% in favour, and 40% opposing.


  • The public would oppose restricting immigration if it resulted in negative personal or national economic impacts. 50% agreed that substantially reducing immigration would have been the wrong course of action if it “directly contributed” to an economic recession. Yet 25% would stand by the reduction and a further 25% did not know. When asked about losing their own job or that of a close family member, 46% would think substantially reducing immigration wrong. However, 23% would still support it and 30% answered that they did not know. Overall, our figures suggest there is a group of between 20% and 44% of the country who would support a clamp-down on immigration, regardless of the personal or national consequences. However, our figures also demonstrate a significant level of uncertainty (21-30%) – this may because the consequences listed were too abstract, or respondents did not believe these were plausible trade-offs.

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