Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.
The declared mission of this Government is to go for economic growth. But senior ministers appear to be divided over what this should mean for immigration.
Kwasi Kwarteng has promised new plans “to ensure the immigration system supports growth while maintaining control” – code for a more liberal use of the new post-Brexit points-system. Liz Truss pledged more short-term visas for agriculture. Other ministers are pushing for a drive to recruit more NHS and care workers.
Yet Suella Braverman used several party conference interventions to suggest that cutting immigration numbers should be the government’s priority. Though Boris Johnson ditched Theresa May’s “tens of thousands” net migration target – always missed – the new Home Secretary now says she still hopes to get overall numbers down to that level.
The Prime Minister is keen to finalise a trade deal with India in time for Diwali this month, but Braverman has warned against a deal that would liberalise migration from India. Might Truss find herself including her own Home Secretary in the ‘anti-growth coalition’ that she has vowed to take on and defeat?
Truss has said she is willing to do unpopular things for growth. But on immigration, she may well be able to take the public with her.
The Ipsos/British Future immigration attitudes tracker has tracked opinion on the issue since 2015 and finds support for reducing overall numbers now at an all-time low. Some 42 per cent of people do want to reduce overall numbers – and a quarter would like to see large reductions – while 50 per cent of people no longer want to see immigration reduced, with similar proportions in favour of current, fairly high levels of migration (26 per cent) and 24 per cent now wanting to see the overall numbers go up.
More also feel that immigration has had a positive effect on Britain (46 per cent) than a negative effect (29 per cent) – a reversal of the tracker’s findings in 2015.
There are sharp spikes in public permission when people are asked about migration to fill specific roles. More than twice as many people would increase rather than decrease migration for people coming to the UK to work as seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers, care workers, doctors and nurses. Only around one in five would reduce immigration for construction labourers (21 per cent) and restaurant and catering staff (23 per cent).
That naming jobs increases public consent may explain why the Prime Minister has spoken specifically about granting more visas for agricultural workers, with her deputy Thérèse Coffey proposing a major international recruitment drive for health and social care workers to deal with short-term pressures.
The public does want immigration to be controlled – but ‘control’ does not necessarily mean ‘reduce’. That may explain why, against a backdrop of warming attitudes to overall immigration, mainly for work and study, there is a much more heated debate about how to address dangerous Channel boat crossings.
These are no-one’s idea of a humane or orderly form of migration. The government’s proposed response, the Rwanda scheme, is deeply polarising, with around a third of the public supportive and a third opposed. Beyond the legal and ethical debates, the latest tracker research finds that a majority of the public believe that it won’t work and will prove poor value for money.
After a long period leading up to the EU referendum where economic migration was a topic of heated debate, we have now reached a quiet, post-referendum consensus, among the public and the main political parties, on migration for work and study. Yet the high profile of Channel crossings and Rwanda ensures that the heat has not gone out of the debate.
That may explain why, after an extended period in which public attitudes have been more positive than negative on immigration, people are still surprised to hear that this shift has happened. The tracker survey finds that only ten per cent of people think public views on immigration have become more positive over the last few years, while 54 per cent feel that we have become more negative about immigration.
Those voices in government who want to bring back a focus on getting immigration numbers down may be similarly out of touch. They can try to steer the Truss Government towards an anti-immigration agenda if they wish – but they would be wrong to say that they have the public’s backing.