What do the public really think about immigration?


By Sir Andrew Green
Chairman of Migration Watch UK
Conservativehome, 7 January, 2012

The immigration industry is in a corner.  The government are proceeding with wide-ranging reform of the immigration system supported by very strong public opinion.  Special interest groups are fighting rear guard actions, often based on misrepresentation of government policy. Otherwise, there is nobody arguing against the need to reduce net immigration.  Even Labour’s spokesman on immigration, Chris Bryant, was obliged to admit in Parliament that “yes of course we think that immigration has been too high and that it should be lower”.

Perhaps that is why some on the left are seeking to suggest that public opinion is not what it seems to be. The IPPR, the Migrants' Rights Network and others, have latched onto a paper produced by the Migration Observatory entitled “Thinking behind the numbers – understanding public opinion on immigration in Britain”.  And guess what... the BBC News website lapped it up too.

This paper reported the results of an opinion poll which sought the public’s views on various categories of migrant and whether they should be reduced (or increased).

They found, for example, that only about one third of the public wanted the number of students reduced – no doubt for the obvious reason that most of them go home after their courses. The picture on workers was more mixed; 59% wanted restaurant staff cut back but only 31% wanted the number of highly skilled workers reduced.

No surprises there - but the paper went on to suggest that, if the government did not take these preferences into account, they would risk reducing immigration in a way that a majority of the public did not support. This was the message that the immigration lobby and the BBC latched onto with such enthusiasm.  Unfortunately for them, the survey itself bore no relation to the government’s actual policies.  The general approach was not described, nor were respondents asked about any of the policy measures actually proposed. On the contrary, they were asked about a range of matters unrelated to present policies.  For example, they were asked whether the number of low skilled workers admitted to Britain should be reduced or not.  In fact, as the report recognised elsewhere, the only low skilled migrants admitted to Britain are from the EU over which the government has no control.  Respondents were then asked whether various categories of students should be increased, reduced or kept the same.  In fact, of course, the government policy is not to increase or reduce the number of students; it is to eliminate bogus students – a quite different matter. The paper did admit, however, that “there is no question that a large majority of the public supports overall reductions to immigration levels”.  They found that 69% supported this but even this figure was lower than usual because the survey included Scotland and 15-17 year olds where opposition to immigration is lower.

The only valid conclusion from this paper is that the public has a shaky knowledge of the details of immigration policy – a characteristic that appears to be shared by the authors and purveyors of the report. Those who had any part in canvassing, for whatever political party, during the last election will be in no doubt of the strength of public opinion on the subject.  If they are to retain the confidence of the public, the government would be well advised to stay firmly on the case.

See Briefing Paper No 10.26 for the memorandum on which this was based.

© Copyright of Sir Andrew Green

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