Immigration policy: basis for building consensus Contents


Background to our inquiry

1.Following the outcome of the referendum on EU membership in June 2016, our predecessors in the last Parliament launched an inquiry to assess whether it might be possible to build greater consensus on immigration policy. We agreed to continue this work.

2.Immigration is a crucial policy area for the UK Government. It has implications for the economy, public services and community cohesion, and has always been part of our history as generations of immigration have brought benefits to our economy and culture. The way countries and communities treat newcomers also goes to the heart of national and local identities. Yet immigration has often been a very divisive issue, and it has risen in public concern. The polarising effect of the Brexit referendum debate has highlighted public anxieties on both sides of the argument. In a separate inquiry, we are looking into hate crime and far-right extremism, as we are very concerned about what happens when division and tensions over issues like immigration are allowed to escalate or are exploited.

3.The process for the UK’s departure from the European Union provides us with an opportunity to reset the tone and shape of the immigration debate. We began our inquiry from the premise that the UK immigration system had to command democratic support and be designed in such a way as to allow the Brexit divide to heal, whatever the outcome of the negotiations about the UK’s future partnership with the EU. We have not yet looked at specific policy options for EU migration as we expect to return to this issue when we scrutinise the Government’s forthcoming White Paper on immigration. Instead we have looked first at the principles behind the immigration system as a whole and at the wider issues that determine whether or not there is a consensus on immigration policy.

4.We sought to conduct a different kind of select committee inquiry, recognising that overcoming division would take a novel approach. Alongside traditional written and oral evidence, we have sought to involve organisations, institutions, businesses, community groups and citizens across the country. Our predecessor Committee held formal evidence hearings and informal community meetings in Bedford and Glasgow. In addition, we have collaborated with British Future on a ‘National Conversation on Immigration’ to consult the public through citizens’ panels in communities across the country. British Future have been working with Hope not Hate to hold 60 citizens’ panels in every nation and region of the UK, asking people detailed questions about their attitudes to immigration and immigration policy, as well as conducting online surveys and opinion polling. Findings from the National Conversation have fed directly into our inquiry to provide us with a clearer picture of public attitudes on immigration and the common ground on which people can agree. British Future are publishing their interim findings alongside this report.

5.Our predecessors heard oral evidence from Migration Watch UK, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and Migration Observatory, and from a range of witnesses from devolved and local government, as well as employers in the care and food sectors. We have since taken evidence from Dr Alan Renwick of University College London’s Constitution Unit, and Professor Robert Ford from the University of Manchester. We also heard from British Future—from its Director, Sunder Katwala and Jill Rutter, Director of Strategy and Relationships, and received many written submissions. We are grateful to all those who have contributed to this inquiry, and particularly British Future who gathered so much useful information for us.

Public debate

6.Opinion surveys have demonstrated over a sustained period of time that British people consider immigration to be one of the key issues facing the country, with the number of people saying it is their top concern peaking during the referendum in 2016 and remaining at high levels since then, and with a clear majority wanting the level of immigration reduced.1

7.However Professor Ford told us that the trends showed that, although “the differences in attitudes between social groups on education, age and so on have got larger over time” and that “comparatively speaking, we see larger divides in Britain than in many other large European countries”, to the extent that attitudes to immigration in the UK have changed over the past 10 to 15 years, “it tends to be in a liberal/positive/less restrictive direction”, and that “movement was pretty consistently in a positive direction”, despite the fact that “the intervening period included the global financial crisis and the largest inflow of migrants in a 15-year period in Britain’s history”.2

8.British Future reports that, on the basis of evidence from their citizens’ panels, most people are ‘balancers’ who believe that there are both benefits and problems arising from immigration and are willing to debate and compromise on different areas of migration policy.3 The National Conversation found significant concerns about the impact of migration on public services, but also support for people coming to the UK to contribute, and recognition of the benefits for the economy. It also found people wanted to know that the immigration system was under control, with proper checks and enforcement in place, and that people were coming to contribute rather than ‘playing the system’. It also identified continued broad support for humanitarian obligations towards asylum-seekers and refugees with the proviso that there should be proper security checks in place. Crucially, it revealed very different attitudes to different kinds of immigration, in contrast to the binary and polarising way that the debate is often presented. It also found low levels of trust in the effectiveness of Government policy, the reliability of official data, and the immigration system more broadly.

9.We recommend that the Government makes it a clear and stated objective of public policy to build greater consensus and trust on immigration. The work of British Future shows that there exists considerable appetite for greater public engagement and for this to be the basis for a constructive and open debate. Our findings chime with this view. Our inquiry has concluded that immigration does not have to be a polarising issue. There will of course always be disagreements over the detail of immigration policy, just as there are in other policy areas. However, we believe that broader consensus can and should be found around the underlying principles of the immigration system, but the debate requires care, honesty and the opportunity for the public to be involved. We also believe there must be clearer explanation of the different types of immigration and the policy frameworks that govern them.

10.Not everything which must necessarily underpin policy—such as adherence to international humanitarian law, for example—is mentioned in this report. Instead we focus on the key areas which our inquiry has revealed need to be addressed in order to build greater consensus. They are areas where reforms and a change of approach are essential for the Government to achieve the overarching objective of forging broader consensus on an immigration policy which is empirically robust. We have identified a series of areas where changes are needed to build confidence and heal divisions. We cannot stress enough the importance of action to prevent escalating division, polarisation, anger or misinformation on an issue like immigration. To fail to address this risks doing long term damage to the social fabric, economy and politics of the United Kingdom. We must always be the kind of country in which people who come legally from overseas to work or to study, or who are fleeing persecution, feel welcome and valued for the contribution they make. And the immigration system must command confidence, be fair and work in the interests of the entire country.

11.We hope that the evidence we have taken and the views and recommendations set out in this report will provide a useful basis from which to develop a more informed and nuanced public debate.

1 YouGov, Top Issues Tracker; Migration Observatory, UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern, 28 November 2016; NatCen Social Research, British Social Attitudes Survey 34, 2017

2 Oral evidence taken on 31 October 2017, HC (2017–19) 500, Q4

3 British Future and Hope not Hate, National Conversation on Immigration: An interim report to the Home Affairs Committee, January 2018

12 January 2018