Printer Friendly


As Britain prepares to leave the EU immigration policy has come to the top of the policy agenda. The Brexit vote was seen as a vote against free movement and new policies are aimed at introducing more restrictive controls. The report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in September 2018 recommended little new provision for low-skilled migration postBrexit (MAC, 2018). This was then adopted by the Home Office in its Immigration White Paper, published in November 2018 (Home Affairs Committee, 2018). The White Paper explicitly references public concerns that migrant labour reduces opportunities for British workers and undermines their pay and conditions. Yet employers have argued that they need to be able to continue to recruit lower, as well as highly skilled labour because the supply of British workers is insufficient. The paper explores the likely impact of proposed restrictions on immigration post-Brexit, using data from NIESR studies of employers and of the general public. It combines an assessment of what is needed to meet the needs of employers, the economy and to address public concerns, finding that there is more consensus than there is often considered to be.

Keywords: immigration policy, migration trends, public attitudes, Brexit. JEL codes: J48, J60.


For some decades tensions have existed between employers' needs to meet labour requirements and public opinion which has favoured reducing migration levels. Over the most recent decade, this tension has intensified and was played out strongly in debates leading up to the vote to leave the EU. Free movement, while undoubtedly benefitting employers (Rolfe et al., 2016), was presented as preventing the UK from controlling its borders and undermining pay and job prospects for British workers.

The debates played out in the media and public debate are reflected in opinion polls which show consistently high levels of concern about economic impacts, alongside those on public services. Yet these concerns are not supported by evidence which was recently reviewed by the Migration Advisory Committee (2018). It found no evidence that immigration has reduced natives' job prospects or wages on average, though there are some, very small, effects on employment and wages of lower-paid and lower-skilled natives. Impacts on public finances have been found to be positive through increased tax revenues, and broader concerns about potential negative impacts on public services appear to be largely unsubstantiated (ibid.). At the same time, immigration has led to higher productivity including by increasing innovation. Other, 'cultural' factors are also believed to be responsible for public opposition to immigration (Hainmueller and Hiscox, 2007, 2010; Kaufmann, 2017). Whether separately or combined, and whether evidence-based or not, these factors result in support for free movement from the EU to end. This prospect is not welcomed by employers, especially those in sectors which depend on migrant labour (Rolfe et al., 2016; Rolfe, 2016: Davies and Rolfe, 2017).

Taking these broad sets of findings at face value it could reasonably be assumed that the preferences of employers and the majority of the public are incompatible. But this might be based on a misinterpretation of public opinion in current studies in a way which exaggerates both economic concerns and makes unfounded assumptions about 'cultural' ones. In this paper we assess a range of evidence from research on public opinion which uses a range of methods including experimental survey research and focus group research that are complementary to survey/polling data. We look particularly at evidence from our own recent focus group research with Leave and Remain supporters to explore the underlying principles to economic concerns, which include considerations of entitlement and contribution (Rolfe et al., 2018). This research took place in the town of Sittingbourne in Kent in the UK, an area which voted Leave in the referendum and which might be considered 'left behind' in terms of economic activity and deprivation. The research involved 12 focus groups with a total of 105 participants. The sample consisted of 60 per cent who voted Leave and 40 per cent who voted Remain, reflecting the area's referendum vote which was 62.5 per cent Leave vs 37.5 per cent Remain. It was also aligned fairly well with local demographic statistics on age, gender and political party. However, it should be noted that it is not a representative sample of the UK as a whole, but designed with the aim to understand different perspectives on immigration. (1)

We look first at how policy in relation to economic migration has evolved in the post-war period and how employers in some sectors now rely on migrants, especially from the EU, to meet labour and skills needs (section 1). We look at employers' preferences in relation to new, post-Brexit, immigration policy (section 2). We then look at how the public has responded to the rise in immigration, particularly alongside free movement, and at evidence for what the majority would like to see in place once the UK leaves the EU (section 3). Finally, we explore the variation between the preferences of employers and the majority of the public, to see whether they are, as is often assumed, poles apart, or whether they might be reconciled (section 4).

I. From post-war expansion to free movement: how migrants have met labour and skills needs

The UK has received migrants for hundreds of years but the use of migration policy to deliberately attract foreign labour is more recent. Post-war reconstruction increased labour demand in the expanding transport and health services, as well as in manufacturing, which could not be met internally (Geddes, 2003). The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave subjects of the Commonwealth the right to live and work in the UK without needing a visa, and this led to significant migration throughout the 1950s. Levels peaked at 136,400 in 1961 and, in response to public opinion, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 placed new restrictions requiring prospective migrants to have secured a job before arrival, or to possess special skills. It also included provision for migrants who could meet 'labour needs' of the national economy and therefore explicitly recognised the need for unskilled migrant workers.

Further restrictions were introduced by the Commonwealth Immigration Act (1968), a Labour Government response to campaigns for tighter controls following immigration of Asians driven out of Kenya (Hansen, 1999). The Act required migrants to have a 'substantial connection with the UK' through birth or ancestry, thereby directly if implicitly favouring white migration. The subsequent Immigration Act (1971) allowed only holders of work permits or with parents or grandparents born in the UK to gain entry, severely restricting primary immigration from the Commonwealth and enforcing the prioritisation of white migrants. This has been seen as a measure to appease Canada, Australia and New Zealand over the likely impact on them of the UK joining the European Economic Community (Williams, 2015).

Although these measures were aimed at reducing immigration and particularly of black and minority ethnic migrants, an average of 72,000 migrants from the Commonwealth settled in the UK during each year of the 1970s, accounting for most immigration during the period and involving citizens of India, Pakistan, the West Indies, Australia and Canada. Much of this was family reunion migration, resulting from families joining primary economic migrants. The pace of non-EU immigration slowed during the 1980s and 1990s, before increasing quite substantially from 1998 onwards, peaking in 2004, declining gradually since then and rising again in recent years (see figure 1).

Migration from the EU

Just as the relationship between Britain and the Commonwealth countries had an influence on immigration legislation from the post-war period, the UK's relationship with the EU shaped it since the 2000s. EU citizens had freedom to live and work throughout Europe from 1992, but numbers of EU migrants were not high during the 1990s and were concentrated in particular sectors, such as finance. The real increase in migration from EU countries began when the EU8 central and eastern European countries (2) joined in 2004, and more recently by the lifting of transitional controls on Romania and Bulgaria in 2014. UK migration policies responded to this changing pattern of immigration by developing a new points-based system to regulate immigration from outside the EEA, phased in between 2008 and 2010. While this system had tiers for highly-skilled workers, students and trainees, (3) a tier designed for unskilled migration (Tier 3) was never implemented. This was because EU migration was by then largely meeting the UK's additional unskilled labour needs. (4) Not only has there been no significant route for low-skilled workers, but the skill level required for Tier 2, the main route for non-EU skilled migration, has increased so that from around 2012 it has effectively been for graduate jobs (Sumption and Fernandez Reino, 2018).

The role of free movement in meeting employers' skill and labour needs

As figure 1 shows, EU citizens accounted for a fairly rapidly increasing proportion of migration from 2004. This was largely as a result of EU enlargement but also because of a reduction in non-EU immigration. Net EU migration slowed between 2009 and 2012 as a result of economic downturn although migration from the older EU member states most affected by the Eurozone crisis, in particular Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy, increased. Overall, net EU migration equalised with net non-EU migration by 2015. It peaked in the year leading up to the referendum in June 2016 and has declined in the following two years, so that net migration from outside the EU is again higher (Blinder, 2018). Net migration from the EU8 countries is now negative, largely driven by a substantial fall in migration from Poland and an increase in return migration (ONS, 2019). Work has been the most common reason given for migration to the UK since 2013, as measured by ONS (2019), and this is particularly the case for EU migration, where there has been a growth in the proportion coming to the UK for a definite job rather than to look for work (ONS, 2018). Again, the most recent data show a decline in EU migrants in particular coming to the UK for work (ONS, 2019).

EU migrants have met employers' needs across all levels of skill, from very high to low, with different distributions from older and newer member states. While around a third of migrants from the older EU member states are in professional roles, compared to around 20 per cent of UK workers, a third of migrants from the EU8 countries are in elementary, unskilled occupations. In addition, one in six is employed in skilled manual trades, compared to close to one in ten of UK-born workers (Wadsworth, 2014). EU migrants are present in most sectors of the economy, but particular concentrations are found in low-skilled jobs, for example food processing (31 per cent), domestic work (27 per cent) and accommodation work (19 per cent) (Rienzo, 2018). EU migrants offer a number of characteristics which make them desirable in the labour market, including age and level of education and willingness to work across the UK (McGuinness and Hawkins, 2016). This is also important in considering public attitudes towards immigration: communities which experienced rapid change as a result of rapid expansion of businesses through recruitment of EU migrants were among those with a high Leave vote (Goodwin and Heath, 2016).

2. Employer immigration preferences

Employers' preferences for immigration policy should be considered within the wider context of why they recruit migrants and, given the intention to place controls on EU migration in particular, why they recruit citizens of other EU countries. These are often overlooked in public debate yet are key to designing future, workable policies since they help explain why the domestic labour supply is insufficient.

Firstly, there is little evidence that employers look specifically to recruit EU migrants. Their recruitment methods are aimed at achieving the highest possible number of applications, and maximising the pool from which to recruit the best quality applicants (Rolfe et al., 2016; Rolfe 2017; Davies and Rolfe, 2017). Employers do use the services of recruitment agencies and these sometimes carry out targeted recruitment abroad when labour shortages are severe (Rolfe et al., 2016). Employers report problems with the supply of UK-born workers, which they explain with reference to intrinsic features of the job, but are largely reluctant to generalise about their suitability (Green et al., 2013; CIPD, 2014; 2015; McCollum and Findlay, 2015).

There is also little evidence of substitution of migrants for training, with employers who recruit migrants also more likely to invest in employee development (George et al., 2012; CIPD, 2018; MAC, 2018). There is also evidence that migrants are recruited for their complementary and sometimes specialist and niche skills, rather than to substitute for home-grown talent, for example in branches of engineering or for language skills in the finance sector (George et al., 2012). The relationship between training and recruitment of migrants also holds for lower-skilled roles where firms which recruit migrants are no less likely to train their employees than those that do not (Rolfe et al., 2016; Rolfe, 2017; CIPD, 2018; MAC, 2018).

Where migrants are valued over British workers it is often in relation to the flexibility they offer in hours of work which enables employers to reduce risk and costs incurred with a permanent, full-time workforce. Migrant workers are more willing to work on a flexible basis while such contracts can be less feasible for British workers, including for reasons relating to welfare benefits and childcare (Rolfe, 2017). Industries including food processing, hospitality and construction have developed flexible production models which have benefited from the supply of EU migrants (Chan et al., 2008; Geddes, 2008; Scott, 2013).

The development of new, post-Brexit immigration policies

Driven by concerns, or expectations, that free movement will end, employers have been looking at how they might increase the supply of domestic labour, including young people, to their sector (Rolfe, 2016; Davies and Rolfe, 2017; London First, 2018). Some report progress with this (Davies and Rolfe, 2017). This is in recognition that young British people may have different expectations from those of migrants and that some are deterred by lack of career opportunities in the sector, both real and perceived. However, it is clear that with net migration from the EU at 57,000 (ONS figures for the year ending September 2018) and with most of this being for employment, the end of free movement without alternatives would be highly problematic. New policies are needed to assist the supply of both skilled and unskilled labour. But post-Brexit immigration policy has been slow to emerge and has focused on the rights of existing EU migrants as much as future policies. Policy in relation to the settlement of EU citizens in the UK remained vague until two years after the referendum vote, but the principles and detail of new immigration policy have developed at an even slower pace. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published its recommendations for new policy, based on a consultation exercise and research in September 2018 (MAC, 2018). This was followed by a Government White Paper on immigration in November 2018. The MAC report suggested very little in the way of provision for low-skilled migration on the grounds of greater fiscal impact from more highly paid migrants. Its recommendations were then carried through into the Immigration White Paper which defined its policy as a 'single skills based system' meaning that no preference is to be given for EU migrants and the emphasis is on skilled migration, defined by qualification and salary thresholds. It refers explicitly to public opinion:
   The MAC has said there should be no dedicated route
   for unskilled labour and we do not intend to open
   one. This is consistent with the public's view that we
   should be attracting the brightest and best to come
   to the UK and that lower skilled labour may have
   depressed wages or stifled innovation in our economy.
   (Home Office, 2018)

The White Paper deliberately makes no special provision for lower-skilled migration, except for a trial Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme and a youth mobility scheme which currently operates for Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Monaco and Taiwan but will be extended to countries with which such a scheme is agreed. These can be assumed to cover the EU. The only provision it makes is a 'transitional' arrangement for twelve month visas which will be subject to restrictions on nationalities, duration and possibly numbers and again available to 'low risk' countries with whom the UK negotiates an agreement. While the term 'low risk' is not defined, it can be assumed to relate to risk of staying on in the UK without a work visa. These visas would give no rights to dependants or access to public funds and would require a twelve month 'cooling off' period, thereby preventing extension.

Employers' preferences for post-Brexit immigration policies

Little independent research has been carried out on employers' preferences for a new immigration system and much output on the issue has been from employer bodies concerned at the implications of the end of free movement for their sector or from non-research sources such as Government-led enquiries (Home Affairs Committee, 2018; House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 2018). Our data on employers' preferences for new immigration policy is drawn from our own research with employers, carried out shortly before the referendum and through a number of subsequent studies. We have explored a range of options with employers, including a points-based system, increased immigration from outside the EU and sector-based schemes. Our research has covered a range of sectors, including hospitality, food and drink production, construction, health and social care (Rolfe et al., 2016; Rolfe, 2017; Davies and Rolfe, 2017; Dolton et al, 2018). These studies show some consistency in what employers believe would work and what would not.

As we described earlier, employers across sectors have benefited from free movement in the relatively plentiful supply of skills and labour. Therefore, employers have a clear preference for it to continue on this basis. They also fear that restrictions, along with lengthy and costly visa application processes will have a negative impact on their operations (Rolfe, 2016; Davies and Rolfe, 2017; Sumption and Fernandez Reino, 2018). These fears are held more by smaller than larger organisations who have less experience of the visa system; as research by the Migration Observatory points out, smaller businesses receive a relatively small share of number of sponsored workers (ibid., 2018). Employers are also concerned that they will be given a stronger role than in the past in enforcing new immigration policy and mistakes will cost them in both financial and reputational terms (Davies and Rolfe, 2017). Employers' preferences need to be interpreted in the context of these general concerns.

Employers in the sectors covered by our research expressed particular concerns that new policies will be focused on higher level skills and that low-skilled labour would be cut, which appears to be the intention of the proposals. They viewed this prospect with some concern, stating that restrictions on the number of migrants in low-skilled work would exacerbate their long-term and chronic recruitment difficulties and labour shortages. This is reflected in the statement of one employer that the referendum vote would result in measures to end unskilled migration:

The outers' view is that migration will stop ... whereas anybody I know who works in a food manufacturing industry is thinking "oh crikey, if that happens, we're going to be seriously stuffed in terms of what we can do to make food". (CEO of food producer, after the referendum)

Some employers considered whether policy applying to skilled labour from outside the EU could be extended to EU workers, including to the lower-skilled people they recruited. However, while this is effectively what is being proposed, a high proportion of jobs currently carried out by EU migrants would not meet the criteria for the new, skilled visas: for example in 2015 only 6 per cent of all employees in the hospitality sector were in jobs which met the Tier 2 criteria (Vargas-Silva, 2016). This is likely to apply to many jobs carried out by EU migrants, who account for 12 per cent of the sector's emloyees. More generally, employers did not believe that any system based on points for skill and salary levels would work for lower-skilled jobs, particularly for entry-level jobs in sectors such as food processing and hospitality.

At the time of writing, the proposals in the White Paper have not been passed and policies are yet to be developed. A series of alternative options will undoubtedly be raised by employers and representatives. An alternative to a points-based system, favoured by some employers, is an occupational shortage list, similar to that which is used for higher-skilled roles. This would identify hard to fill roles but would be hard both to agree and to keep up to date: it is potentially long and needs to cover jobs with generic rather than specific skills, for example customer service (Davies and Rolfe, 2017). Further options might be considered as ways of ensuring employers can access but not over-use migrant labour. One option is a requirement for the employer to prove they had first tried to recruit from within the resident workforce before turning to migrant labour. Employers across sectors say they would be willing to show that they do test the local labour market and provide evidence, including by advertising jobs for specific periods locally (Davies and Rolfe, 2017). Employers also consistently say they would find a requirement on migrants to be offered a job before arrival in the UK to be acceptable (Davies and Rolfe, 2017; Dolton et al., 2018). However, these options are not included in the White Paper which proposes a deceptively simple system based on skills and salaries.

Another option for new immigration policy is to extend the proposed trial Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme to other sectors recognised to experience labour shortages (Home Affairs Committee, 2018). These are attractive to some employers, principally because of the implicit recognition that their sector needs migrants (Davies and Rolfe, 2017). However, while they see such schemes as preferable to tight restrictions on unskilled labour, employers also have concerns about the administration and enforcement involved. These reflect wider concerns about making errors, incurring fines and the bad publicity that might follow (Davies and Rolfe, 2017).

As described above, the White Paper recommends extending the Youth Mobility Scheme which operates in some non-EU countries for 18-30 year olds. Youth mobility schemes are discussed in a paper within this volume by Erica Consterdine. Our research has found employers in low-skilled sectors are interested in hiring young people on such a programme, but there are concerns that young people might be less attracted to hard-to-recruit roles and would need to be in some way 'nudged' towards such work (Davies and Rolfe, 2017; Sumption and Fernandez Reino, 2018). But beyond the benefits and drawbacks of specific temporary visa schemes, employers identified a more general problem in temporary visas in dis-incentivising training and development. Employers across sectors emphasised that for many roles they valued stability rather than high turnover. This applied especially in public-facing roles, for example in health and social care, but also where high turnover resulted in high staff replacement costs (Davies and Rolfe, 2017; Dolton et al., 2018). Our research asked employers about 2-year visas, so that their views are likely to be even stronger for those of up to 12 months. And while some EU migrants are very mobile, data from 2017 finds that 68 per cent of EU-born employees who had been in the UK since 2014 or earlier said they had worked for their current employer for two years or more (Sumption and Fernandez Reino, 2018).

Finally, there is the issue of whether new immigration policies should favour EU citizens or offer parity to non-EU migrants. The White Paper proposes no such priority. On this matter, our research found divergent views between sectors and individual employers with some saying they are happy to recruit from any country, including potentially those with whom the UK signs trade deals. Employers' views are influenced by factors such as language skills and qualification equivalence where non-EU labour is sometimes preferred (Dolton et al., 2018) and proximity and ease of recruitment where EU labour is sometimes favoured (Rolfe, 2016; Davies and Rolfe, 2017).

In summary, the available evidence suggests that employers would like a new immigration system with the following features: policies which allow for the recruitment of lower-skilled workers, rather than only those with professional or high-level qualifications, and jobs at low pay levels; policies which are responsive to changes in the labour market and which can therefore respond quickly to labour and skills shortages; visas which enable migrants to remain in the workforce on a long-term basis to develop skills, experience and company-specific knowledge. Employers would accept a requirement to prove that they cannot meet their labour and skills needs from the resident labour market. They would also accept a requirement to make a job offer to a migrant before entry. The current proposals contain few of these preferences, but focus instead on skills and salary levels as criteria to grant visas. Having established these broad preferences, we look next at evidence on public attitudes and preferences for immigration policy, before turning to the question of whether the two sets of interests can be reconciled.

3. Public attitudes towards immigration

What do the British public think about immigration and what type of post-Brexit immigration policy do they want? Polling and survey data have been instrumental in mapping out attitudes towards immigration and divisions across the population, and exploring these trends over time. The available data show that public opposition to immigration has been widespread in the UK. Historically, people have perceived the economic and cultural impacts overwhelmingly negatively, and polling has consistently found that the British public would like to see immigration to the UK reduced (Ipsos MORI, 2018; Duffy and Frere-Smith, 2014). In recent years, opinion has turned more positive. In particular, perceptions of the economic and cultural impacts of immigration have experienced a dramatic shift. The Ipsos MORI trend survey shows that while 64 per cent of respondents were negative about the impact of immigration in 2011, only 28 per cent were negative in 2018. In contrast, 48 per cent were positive in 2018 compared to 19 per cent in 2011 (Ipsos MORI, 2019). Recently views on whether there are too many immigrants in the UK, which is traditionally the most negative measure, has also experienced a shift in a positive direction, as shown in figure 2 (Blinder and Richards, 2018). This trend seems to have intensified after the Brexit referendum, possibly reflecting a galvanising effect among pro-immigration voters and/ or a reassurance among immigration sceptics that the issue is 'being dealt with' (Curtice and Tipping, 2018; Ipsos MORI, 2018; Ford and Lymperopoulou, 2017; Ford, 2018).

However, while the aggregate survey data find that the British public are now fairly balanced on immigration, most people do not actually hold this balanced view, according to survey findings (Ford and Lymperopoulou, 2017). In practice, polling data shows that people in the UK are either positive or negative about immigration. In fact, in a comparative perspective, Britain is the most divided country in Europe (ibid.). The British public is divided along generational, educational and social lines, and these divisions are growing. (5)

Another strong finding from survey data is that attitudes vary substantially towards different types of migrants, with some being regarded as 'acceptable' or even 'desirable', and vice versa. Generally, opposition to immigration is centred on illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, extended family members and low-skilled workers, while less opposition is found for high-skilled workers, immediate family members and international students (Blinder et al., 2011). This hierarchy of preferences is similar across the attitude spectrum, regardless of whether people are pro- or anti-migration (Ford and Heath, 2014). One particularly clear distinction is the higher acceptance of high-skilled compared to low-skilled workers (Ford and Mellon, 2019; Hainmueller and Hiscox, 2010; Ford, 2011, 2012). Recent research shows that people attach greater importance to this concern, even outweighing other migrant preferences such as their country of origin or religion (Blinder and Markaki, 2018; Ford and Mellon, 2019).

This strong preference for high-skilled migrants is often contrasted with employer preferences that emphasise the need to secure low-skilled migration workers to fill skill gaps. However, in recent years a number of reports based on focus-group research have provided another perspective to this distinction (see Newman et al., 2017; Gaston, 2018; Rutter and Carter, 2018; Rolfe et al., 2018). One of the strong and consistent findings from these studies is that people attach high importance to whether migrants contribute to the host country, particularly to its economy, labour market and welfare state. Focus group participants often make a distinction between migrants who are self-supporting through employment and tax payments, compared to migrants who claim benefits, send money home and rely on the welfare state without giving anything in return.

These findings show that public support centres largely around immigration that is economically beneficial and socially useful rather than necessarily high-skilled. This is demonstrated by high support for immigrants with jobs offers or skills in areas of skill shortages even if these by definition are low-skilled. People also tend to support low-skilled immigrants more when questions are asked specifically about their job, such as fruit-picking, rather than in generic terms as low-skilled (Rutter and Carter, 2018). The fact that the majority of people support contributing migrants and often acknowledge that migrants can have a positive impact on Britain if they contribute through working, filling skills gaps and paying taxes, has led the integration think tank British Future to argue that the UK public are, in fact, 'balancers' who are neither located in the pro or anti-immigration camp (Rutter and Carter, 2018). This is in stark contrast to public opinion data which tend to support the narrative of a deeply divided public.

These findings question the extent to which the debate about a future immigration policy should focus on the distinction between high- and low-skilled migration. More broadly, the findings point to a significant gap in the current evidence base which is almost entirely reliant on polling and survey data. Survey analysis typically relies on the assumption that respondents understand the term 'immigration'--and who the migrant population are--in a similar way to government and in particular how it is defined in official statistics (Blinder, 2015). In reality, respondents' understandings of immigration are largely unknown to survey analysts and are likely to vary substantially (Blinder, 2015). Indeed, survey studies show that people vastly overestimate the proportion of refugees and asylum seekers in the migration population (Blinder, 2015). Some recent survey studies have tried to close the gap by being more specific about varieties of migration (see Rutter and Carter, 2018) and our own focus group research, alongside survey studies, has shown that people's views about Muslim culture and integration play a large role in forming their attitude towards even EU immigration (Rolfe et al., 2018).

Similarly, it is likely that respondents' opposition to low-skilled migration and support for high-skilled migrants, as reported in survey studies, have been misinterpreted and possibly overstated, by relying on the assumption that respondents interpret the difference between high and low skills in a similar manner to the government. In reality, research participants sometimes express surprise that nurses and teachers are considered low-skilled in visa application systems (see Home Affairs Committee, 2018). Our findings, alongside other focus group findings, indicate that existing survey studies may not be able to explain adequately what people mean when they answer that they want low-skilled immigration reduced. Our findings suggest that for a substantial proportion of respondents, high-skilled migrants may be interpreted as shorthand for migrants with a large contribution to the economy through paying taxes and filling skill gaps, whether that is through working as a banker, nurse or a teacher. In contrast, their opposition to low-skilled migration reflects their opposition to migrants who contribute little in fiscal terms, sometimes combined with the belief that such migrants make substantial demands on the welfare state and local services. At the same time participants recognised the value some low-skilled migrants bring, by filling vacancies in hard-to-recruit sectors. While our analysis didn't find this, it is also possible that low-skilled could be a proxy for other negatively-viewed characteristics such as racial/ethnic differences and illegality.

Based on all this, what specifically are people expecting from post-Brexit immigration policy? Findings from our research carried out in April 2018 support the emerging findings that the public wants an immigration policy that ensures a positive contribution of migrants to the economy and labour market rather than necessarily being concerned with the distinction between high and low-skilled. The research found strong support for Brexit as an opportunity to cut down on EU migration, especially low-skilled, expressed in responses to a pre-focus group survey. However, focus group discussions with the same people found this was not necessarily to reduce numbers, but to increase the quality of EU migration. Participants wanted greater control over types of migrants who they regard as not contributing to the UK and its finances. These are irregular migrants who have no legal right to be in the UK and who are working illegally; those who cannot support themselves and who will therefore claim state benefits; those who have committed crimes; and those asylum seekers who do not have a 'genuine' case. The principle concern was to control, or prevent, the entry of people who cannot support themselves and who make demands on public finances (Rolfe et al., 2018).

Participants did have views about the relative value of migrants based on skills criteria, with more positive views being expressed about highly-skilled migrants; examples of which centred on public service occupations such as doctors, nurses and teachers. It is immediately apparent that these jobs are not all necessarily highly-skilled in the government view, but participants' support seemed to centre around their contribution and their role in filling skill gaps. Our findings show that public perceptions and their implicit definitions of low-skilled and high-skilled workers are likely to be nuanced and may vary significantly from individual to individual. It should be noted that this is, in fact, not altogether different from the 'expert' view. Though the term is commonly used in academic, public and policy discourse, 'skill' is a very vague term conceptually and empirically (Ruhs and Anderson, 2011; Cerna, 2011). It can refer to a wide range of qualifications, competencies, attributes and characteristics, ranging from credentialised skills to 'soft skills', and it can be determined by occupation, sector and pay level (ibid.). As such, our focus group participants were not necessarily wrong in their focus on contribution and filling skill gaps. The government's designation of what amounts to high and low skill is just one way to define skill level. This fuzziness of the concept of skill needs to be addressed in future immigration attitudes research.

Participants also saw a need for workers more to fill gaps in supply regardless of skill level. While there was a view that Britain should supply its own unskilled labour, some participants made a case for unskilled migration to be continued, subject to control over numbers. Therefore, as one participant argued:
   I would say with regard to their skills we do need some
   unskilled workers because the people that are unskilled
   in this country won't take [the jobs]. They'd rather
   have benefits because it's better for them. I think that
   we should have a limited amount of different skills
   and unskilled. I think that would be fair. It wouldn't
   over-burden the country.

Participants voiced support for the Australian points-based system, which they understood to operate with criteria of skills, a sponsor and with money in an Australian bank. But again the key consideration was that migrants entering via this system have positive motivations and will not make demands on the state. In people's minds, the support for an Australian-style points-based system appears to be "shorthand for a controlled and selective immigration system that meets the economy's needs" (Rutter and Carter, 2018).

Participants also expressed some support for temporary migration where this is necessary to meet temporary shortages or for seasonal work. At the same time, there was some concern that temporary workers would fail to leave when their visa expired. One participant worried that:
   You'd need to have a whole police force purely looking
   out where these people are, tracking their progress,
   in inverted commas ... They might be sacked the next
   week if they're not very good, or they may seek a job
   with more money somewhere else. They would go

There were also mixed views on whether new immigration policy should give priority to EU citizens, with some participants arguing that this should depend on trade and with reciprocal policies with other countries, including from outside the EU. Economic and skills-based reasons were also given for removing any priority to EU citizens. As one participant argued:
   I don't see why we should have any difference, once
   we're out of the EU when someone from France has
   got the right skills, someone from Australia, India,
   Uzbekistan. It doesn't make a difference. But it should
   be based on what gaps we've got in our economy and
   employment as with skills.

But some participants expressed stronger support for European migration than from other countries, on prejudicial grounds sometimes based on anti-Muslim sentiment. This is in line with other studies which argue that favouritism for European migration can be based on support for the EU or negative views of non-white, non-Christian migrants (Blinder and Markaki, 2018).

To summarise: evidence from existing research and from our recent study suggests that while preferences for future immigration policy range from open to very closed systems, there is likely to be more support among the public for a new immigration system with the following features: careful control over entry to ensure that people with a criminal record are not allowed entry; policies which use criteria of skills and contribution to ensure that migrants do not make demands on public services and finances; policies which ensure that migrants are only recruited where the UK cannot meet its own needs including because jobs are not attractive to residents.

4. Discussion and conclusion: how to reconcile public attitudes and employer preferences

To what extent are the preferences of UK employers and the British public compatible? It is often assumed that they are not. But the preceding sections show more nuanced views of employers and the public than what is sometimes assumed. The findings suggest that the principal task is to design a post-Brexit immigration system that provides reassurance to the British public that the contributory principle is embedded into the new immigration system, and at the same time allows employers to fill skill gaps including the possibility of recruiting low-skilled migrant workers, and that the system allows employers to be responsive to changes in the labour market.

How would this be done? First of all, some may point out that economic evidence shows that immigration is already contributing positively to the UK economy and the welfare state, or at least there is no evidence that it's a negative strain on employment, wages, public finances and services. From this it may follow that public opinion and employer preferences could be reconciled by providing better information to the public. However, existing evidence shows that while correcting misinformation affects knowledge about immigration, it does not seem to influence policy preferences and attitudes (Grigorieff et al., 2016; Hopkins et al., 2016; Sides and Citrin, 2007; Lawrence and Sides, 2014), though some studies provide limited counter-examples of this finding (Blinder and Schaffner, forthcoming). Of course, the failure to influence attitudes may be because the process of correcting information has not been done properly or intensively enough, and it may be that other information channel mechanisms, such as deliberative democratic exercises or other ways of institutionalising public engagement, can reconcile the tension between employer demands and public opinion in the future. But the failure of the public to readjust their preferences may reflect a more fundamental issue as the public base their opinions on other sources than economic evidence and government statistics and instead rely on their personal experiences and local narratives (Rolfe et al., 2018; Rutter and Carter, 2018).

With this in mind, the obvious way of embedding the contributory principle in the post-Brexit immigration system is through introducing mechanisms to control immigration inflows. The finding that the public are less concerned about numbers and skill-level (as defined by the government) than they are about migrants' contribution to the UK, broadly defined, means that it should be possible to reconcile it with the demands of employers. Employers would accept systems which give priority to resident workers and to recruit migrants where they have failed to recruit locally. They would also be willing to offer jobs before entry, therefore reducing the likelihood that migrants failing to find work on arrival become a burden on the state.

Embedding the contributory principle into a post-Brexit immigration system also requires that the public are convinced that migrants' contributions are actually necessary. Participants in our focus groups argued that domestic skills and training have been neglected in recent decades and that not enough has been done to equip local school-leavers, and as a consequence employers have turned to migrants. Another similar argument was that some of the existing skill gaps could and should have been filled by British workers, particularly the younger generation who were often perceived to be relying on benefits (Rolfe et al., 2018). The view of some focus group participants that the quality of jobs needs to be improved to attract young British people, is recognised by employers who are giving fresh attention to how this might be done (Davies and Rolfe, 2017). This does, however, risk reinforcing the view that employers only act to improve the quality of work when faced with serious labour shortages.

Immigration policy alone cannot address public concerns about the contributory principle. The government also needs to make sure that the economic contributions of migrants are used to offset the pressures that any population growth inevitably puts on local infrastructure and public services. This must be done in a transparent way to make sure that any welfare retrenchment cannot be attributed to the migrant population. The existing academic literature on the fiscal impact of immigration shows a positive contribution of migrants particularly over their life-cycle (Oxford Economics, 2018; MAC 2018). But in recent years the rise in immigration to the UK has coincided with austerity and lower spending on public services (Portes, 2018). The MAC explains that "if public spending does not increase in response to a rise in migration, consumption of public services will rise and so, all else equal, the quality of those services will fall" (MAC, 2018). This argument has not been lost on the British public. In our focus groups, it was repeatedly acknowledged, without prompt, that many problems which are attributed to immigration growth actually arise from consistent policy failures to invest in public services and infrastructure such as the NHS, schools and housing (Rolfe et al., 2018). The most recent report from the MAC recommends that funding formulas should be looked into, a step which could help to address this issue (MAC, 2018).

This article has focused on two stakeholders in new immigration policy: employers and the British public, by asking two questions: What do employers want? What does the British public want? And how do we reconcile the perceived tension between these preferences? Other actors in this relationship are EU migrants themselves and what they want. Portes has observed that "migration is not just a matter of the UK choosing migrants; migrants have to choose us" (Home Affairs Select Committee, 2018). Another layer to the argument is the future trade-offs in terms of trade and relations with other EU countries by abandoning freedom of movement. However, as a starting point, this article has shown that the domestic differences between employers and the British public may not be as different as is commonly perceived.


(1) See more detailed description of the sample in Rolfe et al. (2018), p. 11.

(2) Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Estonia.

(3) This has required skilled workers admitted under the main, 'Tier 2' strand to have a specific job offer with Shortage Occupation List jobs gaining extra points. Other requirements include English language proficiency, capacity for financial self-support, age and previous experience.

(4) Other routes for low-skilled labour have been minor and include Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme and dependants of migrants.

(5) See Rolfe et al., 2018, for a review of this literature.


Blinder, S. (2015), 'Imagined immigration: the impact of different meanings of 'Immigrants' in public opinion and policy debates in Britain', Political Studies, 63, pp. 80-100.

--(2018), 'Immigration by category: workers, students, family members, asylum applicants', The Migration Observatory.

Blinder, S. and Markaki, Y. (2018), 'Public attitudes toward EU mobility and non-EU immigration: a distinction with little difference', Working Paper, Reminder Project, August, available at: uploads/2018/08/D10.2-Final-June-2018-with-cover.pdf.

Blinder, S. and Richards, L. (2018), 'Briefing: UK public opinion toward immigration: overall attitudes and level of concern', Migration Observatory, available at: http://migrationobservatory. I 6/04/BRIEFING-PublicOpinion-pdf.pdf.

Blinder, S., Ruhs, M. and Vargas-Silva, C. (201 I), Thinking behind the numbers: understanding public opinion on immigration in Britain', The Migration Observatory.

Blinder, S. and Schaffner, B. (2019, forthcoming), 'Going with the flows: information that changes Americans' immigration preferences, International Journal of Public Opinion Research.

Cerna, L. (201 I), 'Selecting the best and brightest', Migration Observatory, policy primer, University of Oxford.

Chan, P., Clarke, L. and Dainty, A. (2008), 'Staff shortages and immigration in construction, a report prepared for the Migration Advisory Committee', Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), London.

CIPD (2014), The Growth of EU Labour. Assessing the Impact on the UK Labour Market, CIPD.

--(2015), Labour Market Outlook: Views from Employers, Autumn 2015 report.

--(2018), Labour Market Outlook, London: CIPD

Curtice, J. and Tipping, S. (2018), 'Europe', in Phillips, D., Curtice, J., Phillips, M. and Perry, J. (eds) (2018), British Social Attitudes: The 35th Report, London: The National Centre for Social Research, available at: europe.pdf.

Davies, G. and Rolfe, H. (2017), 'Facing the future: tackling postBrexit labour and skills shortages', CIPD and NIESR.

Dolton, P., Nguyen, D., Rolfe, H. and Castellanos, M. (2018), 'Brexit and the Health & Social Care Workforce in the UK', Report to the Cavendish Coalition, NIESR.

Duffy, R. and Frere-Smith, T. (2014), Perceptions and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, London: IPSOS-MORI Social Research Institute.

Ford, R. (201 I), 'Acceptable and unacceptable immigrants: how opposition to immigration in Britain is affected by migrants' region of origin 'Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 37, pp. 1017-37.

--(2012), 'Parochial and cosmopolitan Britain: examining the social divide in reactions to immigration', Transatlantic Trends: Immigration Focus Papers, German Marshall Fund.

--(2018), 'How have attitudes to immigration changed since Brexit', Blog post. f55530.

Ford, R. and Heath, A. (2014), 'Immigration: a nation divided?', in British Social Attitudes: the 31st Report, London: NatCen Social Research.

Ford, R. and Lymperopoulou, K. (2017) Immigration: how attitudes in the UK compare with Europe, in British Social Attitudes 34.

Ford, R. and Mellon, j. (2019), 'The skills premium and the ethnic premium: a cross-national experiment on European attitudes to immigrants', Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Gaston, S. (2018), Citizens' Voices Insights from focus groups conducted in England for the project, At Home in One's Past, DEMOS.

Geddes, A. (2003), The Politics of Migration and Immigration in Europe, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

--(2008), 'Staff shortages and immigration in food processing', A report prepared for the Migration Advisory Committee, London: Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

George, A., Lalani, M., Mason, G., Rolfe, H. and Bondibene, C. (2012), 'Skilled immigration and strategically important skills in the UK economy, Final report to the Migration Advisory Committee', February.

Goodwin, M. and Heath, O. (2016), Brexit Vote Explained: Poverty, Low Skills and Lack of Opportunities, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Green, A., Atfield, G., Adam, D. and Staniewicz, T. (2013), 'Determinants of the composition of the workforce in low skilled sectors of the economy', Warwick Institute for Employment Research report to the Migration Advisory Committee.

Grigorieff, A., Roth, C. and Ubfal, D. (2016), 'Does information change attitudes towards immigrants? Representative evidence from survey experiments', Discussion Paper Series, IZA DP No. 10419, Institute of Labour Economics.

Hainmueller, J. and Hiscox, M.J. (2007), 'Educated preferences: explaining attitudes towards immigration in Europe', International Organization, 61 (2), pp. 399-442.

--(2010), 'Attitudes toward highly skilled and low-skilled immigration: evidence from a survey experiment', American Political Science Review, 104, pp. 61-84.

Hansen, R. (1999), 'The Kenyan Asians, British politics, and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1968', The Historical Journal, 42, 3, September, pp. 809-34.

Home Affairs Committee (2018), Policy Options for Future Migration from the European Economic Area: Interim Report, London: HMSO.

Home Office (2018), The UK's Future Skills-based Immigration System (White Paper), London: HMSO.

Hopkins, D.J., Sides, J. and Citrin. J. (2016), 'The muted consequences of correct information about immigration', available at: http://

House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2018), An Immigration System that Works for Science and Innovation: Eighth Report of Session 201 7-/9, London: HMSO.

Ipsos MORI (2018), 'Attitudes towards immigration have softened since referendum but most still want to see it reduced', available at:

--(2019), 'A world apart? Global study for the BBC Crossing Divides season', available at: ct/news/documents/2019-03/bbc_crossing_divides_2019_0.pdf.

Kaufmann, E. (2017), 'Levels or changes? Ethnic context, immigration and the UK Independence Party vote', Electoral Studies, 48, pp. 57-69.

Lawrence, E.D. and Sides, J. (2014), The consequences of political innumeracy', Research & Politics, 1(2), pp. 1-8.

London First (2018), Building the Workforce of the Future, London: London First.

McCollum, D. and Findlay, A. (2015), "Flexible' workers for 'flexible' jobs? The labour market function of A8 migrant labour in the UK', Work Employment & Society, 29 (3), pp. 427-43.

McGuinness, F. and Hawkins, O. (2016), 'Impacts of immigration on population and the economy', House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, July 2016.

Migration Advisory Committee (2018), EEA migration in the UK: Final Report, September.

Newman, H., Booth, S., and Shankar, A. (2017), 'Beyond the Westminster bubble: what people really think about immigration', Open Europe, available at: wp-content/uploads/2017/12/OpenEurope_lmmigration-Public-Opinion_211217.pdf.

ONS (2018), Long-Term International Migration: UK, November 2018, available at: https://www. populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/ longterminternationalmigrantsuk/2017.

--(2019), Migration Statistics Quarterly Report, February 2019, available at: populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/ migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/february2019.

Oxford Economics (2018), The Fiscal Impact of Immigration on the UK: A report for the Migration Advisory Committee, June.

Portes, J. (2018), The economic impacts of immigration', 6 April, available at:

Rienzo, C. (2018), 'Migrants in the UK labour market: an overview'. Migration Observatory, University of Oxford.

Rolfe, H. (2016), 'Employers' responses to Brexit: the perspective of employers in low skilled sectors', London: NIESR.

--(2017), 'Preference, flexibility and power in the employment of EU migrants in low-skilled sectors', Social Policy and Society, 16,4.

Rolfe, H., Portes, J. and Hudson-Sharp, N. (2016), 'The impact of free movement on the labour market: case studies of hospitality, food processing and construction', London: NIESR.

Rolfe, H, Ahlstrom-Vij, K., Hudson-Sharp, N. and Runge, J. (2018), The role of evidence and perceptions in the Brexit immigration debate', Leverhulme Trust, NIESR and Birkbeck.

Ruhs, M. and Anderson, B. (201 I), 'Responding to employers: labour shortages and immigration policy', Migration Observatory policy primer, COMPAS, University of Oxford.

Rutter, J. and Carter, R. (2018), 'National conversation on immigration: final report', British Future and HOPE not hate, September.

Scott, S. (2013), 'Migrant-local hiring queues in the UK Food industry', Population, Space and Place, 19(5), pp. 459-71.

Sides, J. and Citrin, J. (2007), 'European opinion about immigration: the role of identities, interests and information', British Journal of Political Science, 37, pp. 477-504.

Sumption, M. and Fernandez Reino, M. (2018), 'Exploiting the opportunity? Low-skilled work migration after Brexit', Migration Observatory, University of Oxford.

Vargas-Silva, C. (2016), 'Potential implications of admission criteria for EU nationals coming to the UK', Migration Observatory, University of Oxford.

Wadsworth, J. (2014), 'Immigration, the European Union and the UK labour market'. Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) Analysis, May.

Williams, C. (2015), 'Patriality, work permits and the European Economic Community: the introduction of the 1971 Immigration Act', Contemporary British History, 29 (4), pp. 508-38.

Heather Rolfe, Johnny Runge and Nathan Hudson-Sharp *

* NIESR. E-mail: We would like to thank Scott Blinder and Rob Ford for their comments and the ESRC and Leverhulme Trust (Grant No. RG-20I7-I27) for funding the reaearch we present in the paper.

Caption: Figure 1. Net migration by citizenship status (British, EU and Non-EU citizenship), 1975-2018

Caption: Figure 2. Opposition to immigration, as reported in surveys, 1964-2017
COPYRIGHT 2019 National Institute of Economic and Social Research
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rolfe, Heather; Runge, Johnny; Hudson-Sharp, Nathan
Publication:National Institute Economic Review
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2019

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters