The biggest ever consultation on immigration comes at a time when the topic has fallen off the Westminster radar, writes British Future’s Jill Rutter
One of the more surprising consequences of the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union is that there has been an eerie silence in Westminster about the defining issue of the vote, immigration, ever since.
The Brexit decision was a vote of no confidence in the way successive governments have handled immigration, from the failure to predict mass immigration from eastern Europe to David Cameron and Theresa May’s lamentably ill-thought-through net migration target.
Restoring confidence on such an important issue will be a crucial challenge for the government as it works out Britain’s approach to immigration post-Brexit. A new system will need to work for employers in the private and public sectors and of course honour our international commitments to protect refugees. Crucially, it must also secure public consent to restore calm to an anxious and overheated public debate.
This is far from straightforward, which may explain why the government has consigned its immigration white paper to the back burner and looks unlikely to say anything about it until the end of the year. The opposition, perhaps waiting for something to which it can respond, has been equally adept at ducking the biggest question – what to do about free movement after we leave the EU – while making accommodating noises about international students and refugee families.
The pressure on both main parties to make their positions clear will, however, only heighten as we edge closer to March 2019.
Elected politicians are always very concerned about public opinion. This is no bad thing in a democracy. On immigration, however, they struggle to grasp exactly what that opinion is. Looking at the media debate in the press and online, you might think our society is entirely polarised on the issue. This is not the picture that emerges if you sit and talk to your average voter in, say, Bolton or Shrewsbury, or indeed in Paisley, Ballymena or Merthyr Tydfil. I know because I have spent the last year doing just that.
The National Conversation on Immigration is the biggest ever public consultation on the topic. Over the last year British Future and our partner Hope Not Hate have held citizens’ panels and met with local stakeholders in more than 50 towns and cities across the length and breadth of the UK. By the time the project concludes later this year there will have been over 130 meetings in 60 different places, together with an open online survey and nationally representative opinion polling. The aim is to provide a comprehensive picture of what the public thinks on this key issue: the pressures, the benefits and the choices they think Britain should make on immigration as we reshape our approach after Brexit. We published interim findings from the first 30 visits in January, alongside the first report of a home affairs select committee immigration inquiry that has utilised our findings.
We found that most of the public are ‘balancers’, seeing both pressures and gains from immigration – but they do worry that the government is not in control. People often have different views about different types of immigration, such as high-skilled migration, international students and workers who come to do important jobs such as social care and fruit-picking.
As well as some common themes and concerns there are also differences from place to place – and these are equally important. People see the national issue of immigration through a local lens. If local pressures, such as those on housing or school places, are not seen to be managed, no arguments at the national level about migrants’ contribution to gross domestic product or tax revenue are going to change people’s minds. Talking to people about the place where they live, listening to their concerns and, better still, offering solutions to the issues they face will be much more effective at easing anxieties.
In our conversations in towns and cities from Shetland to Penzance we have learned a lot about people’s views on immigration. It is certainly not one-size-fits-all – but more effort to make integration work better, by encouraging greater contact between people who do not often meet, would probably make a difference in almost every location. Measures to improve the quality and regulation of privately rented housing would help in many.
The pressure on jobs and wages, by contrast, was raised much less frequently. Where people were concerned about job displacement and the undercutting of wages and employment conditions, it could often be linked to specific employers – Sports Direct in Chesterfield, for example. The impact of migration on the labour market was also an issue that was raised in places that have seen the loss of secure, blue-collar jobs in traditional industries in towns such as Grimsby, Kidderminster and Northampton. Securing broader public support for immigration will not only require changes to immigration policy, but will also need us to address broader issues about job security, regional development and economic opportunity.
Our conversations also revealed that the public have little trust in governments’ ability to handle immigration effectively and fairly. An approach that looks only at the local level will not succeed on its own – people are expecting national policy to change after the referendum and it is very hard to see the public buying into a system that does not include significantly more control. Yet, engaging people in the choices we make for the future is one step towards rebuilding confidence.
Jill Rutter is director of strategy at the thinktank British Future. She tweets @jillyrutter
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