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Unanswered Questions on Migration - Can we balance public opinion and the needs of the economy?

Posted on 06 March 2017 by Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive .
Tags: Brexit, EU, immigration

We have seen a fall in the official international migration estimates. Net migration to the UK for the year ending September 2016 was 273 thousand, down 49 thousand. Although the change was not “statistically significant”, the decreases in the net migration of citizens of EU8 countries (such as Poland and Lithuania) and non-EU long term students immigrating to the UK were. Applications for asylum were also down, the first fall since 2010.

A briefing by the Migration Observatory in February, “Migrants in the UK: An Overview”, says the foreign-born population more than doubled from 3.8 million to around 8.7 million between 1993 and 2015. Recent levels of international migration have not been welcomed by the public. In NatCen’s 2013 British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey, almost four in five of us wanted immigration reduced. Similar levels were observed in 2008 and 2011 and more than 70% wanted to see a reduction in 2003, even before the EU enlargement saw us welcome large numbers of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe.

So if the net migration numbers are now falling, it is difficult not to conclude that it is what the public have wanted to see for at least two decades. But if adding about 300 thousand to the UK population size per year through international migration is unacceptable, what is the right level and why? In practice, the UK doesn’t have a clear population policy and the evidence on what level of international migration would best suit the UK for the year 2020 is weak. The Government’s aspiration, as set out in its manifesto, is that net migration should return to the “tens of thousands” seen in the 1980s and 1990s. This can be argued for on the basis of it being in the direction of travel that the public wants, providing a more sustainable population going forward and/or it leading to fewer pressures on local communities, infrastructure and public services. So should public opinion also help guide politicians on the specifics of how a reduction is implemented?

Current immigration rules for those outside of the EU focus on skilled workers, family members and students, as well as others like entrepreneurs and innovators. The targeting of “bogus” colleges and marriages, and those who overstay their visas, chimes well with public opinion with 82% thinking Britain should take strong measures to exclude illegal immigrants. But the BSA also suggests the public has a nuanced view of international migration. We believe the benefits of non-EU students coming to the UK slightly outweigh the costs but believe the costs of labour and spousal reunion migrants greatly outweigh the benefits. If we do take the public’s lead then it follows that we should have a more welcoming policy on international students but be tougher on accepting migrant workers.

A big question for the Government is what rules might be applied to EU citizens wanting to immigrate to a UK that is outside of the EU. The 2016 NatCen Panel suggested 7 in 10 of us want to limit EU migration after Brexit, including the majority of those who voted both Leave and Remain in the referendum, and 7 in 10 want EU citizens treated like non-EU citizens. But should the policy be the same and why? And how willing are we to compromise to maintain a good economic relationship with the EU, versus the rest of the world? 

Before Christmas, we saw the UK food industry warning that the sector needs access to permanent and seasonal EU labour, as well as fears from farmers that they will not be able to pick and pack crops. The implication is they don’t believe they can find the numbers or skills from within the existing UK job market, including the 1.6 million unemployed people (people not in work but seeking and available to work). While the Government may have made reassuring comments to farmers, over 80% of the public believe a person who is unemployed should take jobs that are unsuitable for them even if the job is on the minimum wage or on a short term contract or they are not interested in it. So policies that encourage the unemployed to take on jobs vacated by departing EU workers could potentially be popular with the electorate. In other words, the public view on what kinds of immigration the UK needs is not in tune with the view of business.    

It is difficult not to conclude, based on what the public tells us, that a fall in the headline migration numbers is important and will be largely welcomed. The target level and how the reductions in numbers are made matters though if politicians are to best meet the economic and social needs of the country, as well as meeting public expectations, in the coming years. And if migration levels continue to fall, the case will strengthen for a more nuanced immigration policy as we prepare to leave the EU. If freedom of movement ends it will become possible to more tightly control both levels of immigration and the types of immigrant entering the UK and set a policy that meets the UK’s specific needs, informed by evidence including public opinion. 

We may need to accept that policy makers will revisit their approaches along the way, as the implications of Brexit emerge, if they are to find the right balance to enable net migration to fall to an acceptable level for the public while ensuring our economy and society can thrive.

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