Post-Brexit Immigration Policy: Reconciling Public Perceptions with Economic Evidence

The National Institute of Economic and Societal Research (NIESA) and Birkbeck, University of London, yesterday published a hugely revealing research paper as a contribution to the design of post-Brexit immigration policy.

The study was based on a sample of 105 focus group participants in a Leave-voting area of the UK with relatively high levels of concern about immigration. The intention of the researchers was not to achieve a representative sample, but to understand a particular set of perspectives on immigration that lie behind the opinion polls.

What is deeply depressing is that the researchers found that participants held to a clear hierarchy of evidence, in which personal experiences and anecdotes were viewed as more credible than even media stories, let alone statistical data. Positive reports were mistrusted and instead participants concluded that it was best to rely on their own evidence, drawn from experience and the accounts of people they knew.

What is encouraging, however, is the misperceptions about the concerns held that the research sheds light on. Participants readily acknowledged that low-skilled migrants meet labour shortages in sectors such as social care, and often perform jobs considered unattractive by British people. But they were concerned about the opportunity of young British people to acquire skills.

The main concern about EU immigration was its perceived impact on services, with some participants believing migrants to be a net drain on the public finances, while being given priority access. They believed they should be in the UK to work and should be net contributors through employment and taxation.

The desire more specifically was for the screening out of perceived low-quality migrants. It is important to appreciate, however, that the defining factor in distinguishing between ?high? and ?low? quality was not qualification and skills, but instead economic need and the contribution - or lack of it - believed to have been made.

Control was also seen as important, ensuring that people come to contribute - whether work or study - rather than to claim benefits or to commit crime.

The relevance of this report - in fact its revelation - is that the needs of businesses and services might not be as irreconcilable to the preferences of the voting public as is usually assumed. This makes the report essential reading for anyone with an interest in immigration.

The narrowing of the difference still depends on a number of factors. First, we need the government to show it is back in control. Second, we need to work harder at dispelling myths about immigration - sensitive to the need of not putting people in the position of thinking they?re being talked down to, and third we need to work harder at ensuring that British workers can find gainful employment, at providing young people with training opportunities, and for jobs to be of good quality.

As matters stand right now there are grounds for considering that one or more of these hurdles might just be too high. While I?m not particularly thinking of banking and financial services here, we can play our part, not least through embracing modern apprenticeships and other means of opening up careers in finance.

The research, while based on only a limited sample, provides an invaluable insight into what is needed in order to instil public confidence in an economically sound immigration policy going forward. One that makes economic sense and in fact meets the criteria set by the Migration Advisory Committee of being of benefit to the UK resident population.

It closes by adding that employers are confident when it comes to recruiting highly skilled workers, though adds that some (and we?d add our voice to this) are not necessarily satisfied with current visa arrangements for recruiting non-EU migrants and would not wish these to be used more widely. It also provides the salutary reminder that, in addition to considering the needs of the economy, employers and the general public, we should also be mindful of the viewpoint of prospective EU migrants themselves and whether or not we can be said to meet their needs.