Comment: Analysis of the polls reveals a sophisticated public attitude to immigration

By Penny Young

The Bulgarian ambassador did not help the cause of his folk back home with his remark that the Home Office apparently approves every work permit application to enter the UK since 2007.

Indeed the temperature of the debate will only heat up more as we enter 2014, when January will see the much-discussed removal of restrictions on the movement of Bulgarian and Romanian economic migrants around Europe and into the UK. Five months later, elections to the European parliament will show whether Ukip's rise on the back of its anti-Europe, anti-immigration stance is translated into electoral success.

From a political perspective (I’ll leave the economic arguments to the economists), it is clear why this is such a vital issue for UK politicians in the run up to European elections and with the general election only 18 months away: the UK public is very concerned about the impact of immigration, and more so than in the past.

Findings from our British Social Attitudes survey showed that in 2011, 75% of the public backed a reduction in overall immigration to the UK, compared with 63% in 1995. The public has also become more pessimistic about the cultural and economic impact of immigration. In 2011 only a third (34%) thought that the cultural impact of immigration was positive, with close to half (47%) viewing it as bad or very bad and over half (54%) viewed the economic impact as bad or very bad. The public has also been concerned about immigration for a long time – 63% wanted a reduction in 1995. Since 2003 it has stayed at around three quarters.

Public opinion is more complex than this however, and politicians jumping on the anti-immigration bandwagon should be aware that, as with many issues, public attitudes are far more nuanced than simply a demand for a blanket ban on immigration. Like the British Social Attitudes survey, poll after poll shows when asked simply if they want immigration to be reduced, the British public comes out strongly in favour. But our survey follows up this question with some about highly skilled migrants and students and shows that the British public takes quite a sophisticated view of immigration.

So 63% of the public think migrants from eastern Europe coming to fill professional jobs is good or very good for Britain. And they don't seem to mind if professionals settle without a job lined up: 59% think it's good or very good if professionals from eastern Europe are coming to look for work. Moreover the concerns about negative cultural impact appear to be completely overridden in the public’' mind by the economic status of a migrant: 67% of us think that students from eastern Europe coming to study here would be very good, good or neither good nor bad for Britain – but only if they have good academic grades.

It is unskilled labourers coming to Britain without a job lined-up that the public is most worried about. Seventy per cent say the settlement of low-skilled migrants from Eastern Europe looking for work is a bad thing.

So the attitudes of Britons can be broadly summed up like so: they are not opposed to migration as a rule, but strongly favour migrants they see as good for the economy and easy to integrate. And, while there are concerns about cultural impact, qualifications are more important.

So are politicians getting it right? With European migrants there isn't much that can be done in terms of slowing their entry, without leaving Europe altogether.  Immigration minister Mark Harper said a fortnight ago that retaining the restrictions on migrants from Bulgaria and Romania would contravene European law. Likewise, it isn't possible to restrict the entry of lower skilled migrants from Europe despite the fact that this would be welcomed by the public. 

However, being seen to make it more difficult for immigrants to come to the UK is perhaps more realistic.  In recent days it has emerged that the prime minister may be planning on extending the length of time that a migrant to the UK has to stay in the country before they are entitled to claim benefits. British Social Attitudes has shown attitudes to benefit claimants hardening considerably over the past 30 years, so this would appear on the face of it to be a strong vote-winning strategy, appealing to two of the public's big concerns at the same time. 

In his recent speech at the Conservative party conference, the prime minister also stressed that the coalition had reduced immigration and got rid of 'bogus colleges'. Reducing net migration should go down well but, as we have seen, this will depend on whether it is professionals or low skilled workers who are being prevented from entering the country. Shutting bogus colleges might play well to the public's preference for students with good over bad grades, although the policy is, of course, more about stopping people coming in on dodgy student visas.

On the opposition benches, Chris Bryant's widely-publicised speech criticised the employment practices of Tesco and Next there and contained a few policy ideas, including a particular focus on clamping down on sham marriages. But efforts to address illegal immigrants, much like the government's now infamous 'go home' vans, would not address worries about migrants coming in legally from Europe.

Another widely employed political strategy is to talk about renegotiating our relationship with the EU. For example, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has argued for reform of how the free movement of workers operates. But long term strategies like this may not hold much sway with a public concerned about immigration right now.

When we publish new data on attitudes to immigration next year, collected during this summer, we'll get more of a sense of whether the imminent removal of restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians has increased public concern about immigration.

But our understanding of public opinion would suggest that a sensible position is one that shows an attempt to reduce immigration, with a recognition that we need – and indeed welcome – well-trained professionals from outside the UK. It is natural that politicians are going to want to show they are taking action on an issue that the public is clearly concerned about. But they shouldn't forget that bringing in high quality students (there were already more than 5,000 students from Romania studying in UK higher education institutions in 2011/12) and professionals from abroad can be a vote winner too.

Penny Young is the chief executive of NatCen Social Research.  Her career has been spent understanding consumers and citizens in a variety of settings: as director of research at the campaigner and publisher Which?, as head of audiences at the BBC Trust, and in her early career she trained at the Office for National Statistics.

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