Quick summary

Immigration has been a major contributor to population growth in recent decades, with EU migration particularly high since 2004.

There are clear economic and demographic benefits from immigration, though public attitudes are often hostile, in part due to concerns about the impacts of immigration on national identity and culture.

Political views on the ‘right’ approach to immigration have also been highly polarised.

There is nuance in public opinion that provides an opportunity to reach a position on immigration that commands widespread public support.

Addressing objections to immigration, such as the pressure it places on public services and concerns about integration, directly could represent a way forward.

Immigration has emerged as a highly contentious issue in recent elections and in the EU referendum. Indeed, there seems to be a clear split in the population between those who support open borders and those who want to see the movement of people tightly managed. This apparent polarisation of views creates challenges to the development of a post-Brexit immigration strategy for the UK that commands broad-based public support.

Looking at the numbers shows that the UK has experienced significant immigration in recent decades, and particularly following the accession of the ‘A8’ Eastern European economies to the EU in 2004. More than half of the growth in the UK population between 1991 and 2016 was the direct result of immigration, a statistic representing an addition of 4.5 million people. These new members of the population have tended to have slightly different characteristics to the population they join – EU immigrants are younger, more likely to have a degree and less likely to claim benefits than the average UK-born citizen. They are also more likely to live in London.

It is also clear that many sectors of the economy depend on these flows of workers. Data for 2014 shows that within the NHS, around 35% of hospital consultants, 22% of GPs and 14% of nurses are from overseas, while an estimated 75,000 temporary migrant workers are employed in UK agriculture each summer. They are also important for the demographics of many places – without net immigration, the populations of Scotland and Wales are forecast to stagnate over the next decade and shrink after that. As migrants tend to be of working age, they help to counterbalance the ageing of the UK-born population and mitigate increases in the dependency ratio (the ratio of non-working age people, including the elderly and children, to people of working age).

Despite the evidence of substantial economic and demographic benefits resulting from immigration, popular attitudes are not universally supportive, with concerns about the impact of migration on national or local identity and culture. However, recent research is also highlighting nuances in public views around immigration. The National Conversation on Immigration has found that the majority of the public balance the benefits and pressures of immigration in their views. Opinions also differ depending on the type of migration – people are broadly supportive of high-skill migration and migrants who do specific jobs, and don’t necessarily think that university students should be included in immigration statistics. Opposition is higher, though, towards the broad group of lower-skilled workers, and there are clear local differences in viewpoints, driven by specific public concerns.

Another issue is that the views of politicians don’t always appear to align particularly well with those of the people they represent. The Conservative party decided to retain their commitment to reducing net migration to the tens of thousands in the last election, a policy that has attracted widespread criticism. The government has also described in the past its intention to create a ‘hostile environment’ to illegal immigration, an approach that has recently attracted condemnation in light of the Windrush scandal. The Labour Party, meanwhile, has often expressed support for free movement, although the party’s current position is that this must end following the UK’s departure from the EU. The absence of a party policy on illegal immigration has also come under fire.

The question, therefore, is what the way forward looks like when public opinion is nuanced and sometimes explicitly opposed to immigration, and political stances are highly polarised. As a starting point, more talk about how we can make the successful integration of migrants a reality and the norm seems to be important. This might include further extending the provision of language classes, and ensuring public investment in infrastructure and public services keeps pace with population change and is targeted at areas where population growth is highest. There are also questions of whether immigration policy should more explicitly reflect skills shortages in the economy, though there are challenges to implementing such an approach effectively.

Whatever is decided, it is apparent that some of the most difficult tensions in public policy are manifested in immigration policy. In particular, the challenge of reconciling the necessity of a productive economy and the viability of the public finances with concerns around protecting identity, culture and way of life seems to be particularly thorny.