Heather Rolfe explores the findings of the latest British Future/Ipsos immigration attitudes tracker, highlighting that when it comes to migration for work the public prioritise control over reducing numbers.
Migration has been headline news almost all summer, with the spotlight on small boats and the failure of the government’s series of big ideas to deter and process asylum claims. Last week Labour responded with its own proposals, accusing the government of losing control of the UK’s borders and pledging to bring immigration into line.
As well as record channel costings, net migration reached an all-time high of 606,600 in the period March 2022 to March 2023. Speculation from researchers at the Centre for Policy Studies that net migration could come close to 1 million was swiftly taken up by the media. In the build up to the figures’ release, politicians, including the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, warned of the need for urgent action to reduce numbers.
These circumstances have put immigration attitudes to the test. Our British Future/Ipsos tracker survey, carried out just after the release of the record figures, found just under half of respondents (48%) said they would like the number of migrants coming to the UK to be reduced, a six-point increase since 2022, while a similar proportion (44%) said they would like numbers to be increased (22%) or to stay the same (22%).
Some clear political divides are behind this overall figure: while policies aimed at reducing immigration are favoured by Conservative supporters, with 67% in favour of reductions, they have considerably less support among the wider public, particularly among younger age groups. Fewer than four in ten (38%) of Labour supporters favour reductions and more than half (56%) say numbers should increase or stay the same.
What about the workers?
The focus of immigration policy has recently been on the difficult issue of asylum, and the question of migration for work has been largely ignored. Can we conclude that attitudes to all types of migration have also become less positive and that the public would like numbers reduced?
On paper, there would seem to be more scope to cut migration for work than other types, simply because of its scale. Recent figures show more than five times as many people have come through work routes than to seek asylum. In the year to June 2023 more than 300,000 work visas were issued, bringing in more than half a million people, including dependants.
Numbers vs control
One consistent research finding is that people prefer policies that exert control over those that reduce numbers. In our 2022 tracker 40% of respondents expressed a preference for control, while 27% for reduced numbers. In the latest wave of the tracker, we asked this question specifically about immigration for work. Responses to this new question show a clear preference for control through selecting who gets a visa, rather than aiming to reduce numbers.
Again, there are some differences by political allegiance, with Conservatives more likely than Labour supporters to favour reducing numbers. However, control is – by a slim margin in the case of Conservatives – the most popular option among supporters of both parties.
The tracker finds that almost half of the public think migrant numbers should be reduced, and almost a third would give priority to reducing numbers. However, when asked about specific sectors and occupations, far fewer would wish to make cuts in current levels of immigration. Across a wide range of occupations there is much higher support for keeping levels the same, or increasing numbers, than for reductions.
Almost eight in ten people would like numbers of migrant nurses and doctors to increase or stay the same and almost three-quarters feel the same about social care workers. There is support for an increase in migrant doctors and nurses from a majority of respondents.
This is despite the contribution of health and care visas to recent high levels of net migration: in the year to March 2023 102,000 health and care visas were granted, up more than two and a half times on the previous year. This rate of increase has continued so that in the year to June 2023 the health and care sector accounted for 57% of all worker visas.
People don’t see health and care as a special case: almost three-quarters (73%) want to see numbers of migrant seasonal agricultural workers increased or kept the same. Fewer than one in five (18%) would like numbers reduced.
For other occupations – with the exception of bankers – there is majority support for increasing numbers, or keeping them the same. These include construction workers, teachers, IT professionals, hospitality staff, lorry drivers and academics. For each of these, a majority of 65-69% support numbers increasing or staying the same (with more wanting numbers to stay the same than increase), while 20-25% favour reductions.
For each occupation, survey respondents will have used judgements about need, contribution and the consequences of labour and skills shortages. The government has done something similar: many occupations where there are shortages are not covered by the points-based system and exceptions have been made.
Much is made of salary thresholds, but the real barrier to recruiting through the points-based system in construction, agriculture, social care and road haulage is the skills threshold, at RQF3 (equivalent to ‘A’ level).
Yet the public clearly doesn’t use either criteria of formal skill requirements or salary when deciding whether employers should recruit migrants to fill vacancies. It’s about contribution and economic and social need. Overhauling the points-based system along these lines would make it easier for employers to address shortages: it would also be in tune with public attitudes.
The tracker’s findings could be seen as endorsement for migration for work policies, but responses to other questions show high levels of dissatisfaction and low levels of trust in the government’s handling of immigration, including on migration for work: two-thirds of the public and 42% of Conservatives say they don’t trust the Government on migration for work.
Soundbites about reducing reliance on foreign labour followed swiftly by higher visa allocations for fruit pickers could be seen as hypocrisy – a reflection of divisions in the Conservative Party rather than public attitudes.
As we enter the new political year, we’ll be lucky if politicians agree to disagree on migration. Yet when it comes to migration for work, politicians should consider catching up with the public and agree to agree.
By Dr Heather Rolfe, Director of Research and Relationships, British Future.