Government crackdown on low-skilled migration at odds with public mood

Conventional wisdom has it that that British people are strongly against low-skilled migration, but much more accepting, and even supportive, of high-skilled migration. This preference continues to influence policymaking, as the UK government seeks to introduce a new skill-based immigration system post-Brexit, aimed at reducing the number of low-skilled migrants.

The proposal to set strict limits on low-skilled migration has been justified by the UK Government on the grounds that it’s “consistent with the public view”, and indeed all reputable opinion polls show that the UK public are in favour of a crackdown on low-skilled migration.

But what exactly do people mean when they say they want low-skilled migration reduced? This week, as part of an edited collection on post-Brexit immigration policies, my colleagues and I have published an open-access paper presenting findings from our survey and focus group research with Remain and Leave voters. We conducted 12 focus groups with a total of 105 local participants in Sittingbourne in Kent. Our sample of participants (recruited by a market research company) reflected that 62.5% of voters in the local area voted in favour of Brexit, and it was also broadly balanced in terms of age and gender.

Based on this research, we show how the public and the Government are talking at cross-purposes when it comes to skill, leading to questions about the validity of current skill-based policy proposals. The concept of skill is much less clear than you might expect. Even experts don’t agree exactly what skill means. It’s a very ‘slippery’ term that can refer to a range of qualifications, competencies, attributes and characteristics, ranging from credentialised skills to soft skills, and influenced by the individual’s sector and pay level, or by employer preferences.

The Government’s immigration proposals essentially define skill in terms of qualifications and a salary threshold of £30,000. But this is just one way to define skill. And as many commentators have pointed out, the threshold is well above UK’s median full-time wage of about £28,000, and “it doesn’t just hit fruit-pickers and baristas but butchers, primary school teachers, radiographers and so on.” It should be noted that given nurses are currently exempt from the £30,000 minimum salary requirement for current Tier 2 work visas, this could presumably also be the case for EU citizens under a new system, especially given the migration proposals would put hospital services at risk.

Given the disagreements about the definition of low-skill among experts, it is not surprising that recent focus group research by myself and colleagues from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) found that public perceptions of skill are similarly fuzzy and vary quite widely. Our focus group participants did express views about the relative value of migrants based on skills criteria. However, they rarely referred to salary levels, but instead focused on migrants’ ‘contribution’ to the host country’s economy and labour market.

When introducing the proposals, Prime Minister Theresa May also referred to contribution of migrants: “We will be deciding who comes here. That decision will be based not on where somebody comes from but on the contribution they will make to our economy. And so it will be a skills-based system.” But while the Prime Minister understands ‘contribution’ and ‘skill’ based on salary and qualifications, the examples given by our focus group participants were quite different. They focused on public service occupations such as nurses, social care workers and teachers, but they also included less ‘socially useful’ jobs which migrants do to meet labour and skills shortages, for example fruit picking and serving food and drink.  

Indeed, other recent research has found that people express more support for low-skilled immigrants when questioned about specific jobs rather than in generic terms as low-skilled work. This suggests that the low-skilled label carries negative connotations (and the high-skilled label positive ones), probably reflecting the use of such terms throughout decades of public debate. Our research found that, in many people’s minds, low-skilled migration is short-hand for other negatively-viewed characteristics such as low contribution, benefit ‘scrounging’ and benefit tourism, and illegality. 

It is clear that the UK Government’s interpretation of low skill, measured according to a minimum salary of £30,000, is at odds with the public’s more nuanced and complex view, centred around a more nebulous concept of contribution to the economy and the community. Given the likely impact that restricting low-skilled migration will have on employers and the economy, it therefore seems unwise for the Government to give so much credence in its proposals to a view of public preferences which is simplistic at best and mistaken at worst.

This points to a broader problem about how public opinion is translated into policy. Its nuances, complexities and contradictions are difficult to accurately capture in opinion polls and therefore to build into the policymaking process. Of course, the UK Government is acutely aware of this dilemma, as it currently grapples with how to honour the referendum decision to leave the European Union. When the dust has settled, and Brexit is no longer absorbing the oxygen needed to address other problems, the Government and parliamentarians should reflect on how to avoid interpreting public preferences in their most simple form. Doing so is a disservice to the public and will lead to policy that neither reflects their preferences and fails to meet other economic, political and social objectives. 

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