Open Europe today published its new report, “Beyond the Westminster Bubble: What people really think about immigration.” This is the first part of Open Europe’s Immigration project.

Our report shows that the current immigration system faces a crisis of confidence, with the Government’s net migration target dismissed as a meaningless “soundbite”. Brexit now offers an opportunity to design new immigration policies that can command greater public support. It is clear that the public want to see immigration controlled, but this should not be interpreted as a mandate to pull up the drawbridge. Most people do recognise both positive as well as negative aspects of immigration, and understand it can both alleviate and exacerbate public policy issues.

A new immigration system must address key concerns in order to receive broad public support. While our results show that Leave voters see immigration as a more important issue facing the country, we found multiple areas of agreement between Leavers and Remainers on how best to manage immigration. Our research provides an evidence base for a sensible conversation about post-Brexit immigration policy.

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.

Public prefer flexible control over a reduction in numbers

There is clear public preference for a system with greater controls, but more flexibility than a cap or a target. 56% of the British public think the government should prioritise assessment of potential immigrants’ contribution to society, economy and our way of life, against 36% who favour simply reducing the numbers of people coming to the UK. A substantial minority of Leave voters (43%) agree with this position. Therefore, 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.

Clear support for immigrants coming to work in specific roles

The public are widely supportive of immigration for work. All specific roles we tested, both high- and low-skilled, received either net positive or neutral support.

Immigrants coming to work in “socially useful” occupations, such as doctors and nurses, received greatest public support among both Remainers and Leavers. Both groups also strongly supported those coming to work in a skills shortage area (58%). “Social usefulness” appears a stronger indicator of public support than traditional labour market skills classifications of high and low skills, with the public proving more supportive of care workers than entrepreneurs or computer programmers. This was also the case in our focus groups, with participants more open to low-skilled immigration to work in social care than in the hospitality sector.

Public prioritise criminal background checks, and don’t consider immigrants’ race or ethnic background to be important

Our poll found that people believe the most important factor to consider before granting entry to immigrants is whether they have a criminal record. This is the case among both Remain and Leave voters. On the other hand, race, religion and sexual orientation were consistently considered the least important factors in determining entry, by both Leave and Remain voters, as well as and those who consider immigration a top-three priority issue facing the country. Our data therefore contradicts the view that xenophobia, racism or intolerance are major drivers of public attitudes towards controlling immigration.

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 public 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.

It is clear from our results that the public do want a new system to deliver greater control over immigration – there is little support for continued free movement, or a reliance on arbitrary caps on targets. However, this does not mean closing the borders to new arrivals. The public instead want a sensible and flexible system of managing immigration that takes into account the UK’s needs. Brexit offers a chance to reset the debate and design a new immigration system that can attract broad public support.