Record support for severe curbs on immigration
Record support for major reductions in immigration as study shows attitudes hardening among middle classes, immigrant communities themselves and even those who say migration has boosted Britain
By John Bingham, Social Affairs Editor
6:00AM GMT 07 Jan 2014
Support for sweeping curbs on immigration to the UK has reached record levels, a major study of public opinion shows.
Almost eight out of 10 Britons now believe that the number of new arrivals should be limited and nearly six in 10 want to see major reductions in the number allowed in.
The numbers advocating a large cut have swelled by more than 40 per cent since before the expansion of the European Union, according to the latest findings from the British Social Attitudes survey, which has been charting public opinion for more than 30 years.
Strikingly, it shows that even among those who believe that immigration has boosted Britain’s economy and enriched its culture, clear majorities now want to see it cut.
There is also a sharp divide along class lines, with an elite of highly paid and highly qualified people twice as likely as workers from middle and lower income families to view immigration in positive terms.
Significantly, attitudes have also hardened even among those from immigrant families themselves with less than half now convinced that it is good for the economy and a quarter doubting the cultural benefits.
The findings came as Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, underlined divisions with the Coalition over immigration insisting that the Government “certainly won’t achieve” its target of getting numbers below 100,000 before the General Election next year.
Speaking in a BBC documentary, The Truth About Immigration, he described the cap, a flagship Conservative policy, as “not sensible”.
In the same programme, Jack Straw, the former Home Secretary, described Labour’s estimates of migrant numbers ahead of the main eastward expansion of the EU in 2004 as “completely catastrophic”.
And David Blunkett, his successor, admitted that the Blair government had not spelt out likely the full impact because of a “fear of racism”.
Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, who presents the programme, said at the weekend that the corporation had made a “terrible mistake” in downplaying public concerns over immigration.
The study of more than 3,000 people found that 77 per cent want immigration reduced, with only four per cent favouring an increase.
Fifty six per cent support reducing it “a lot” – a record level. In 1995, when the question was first asked, only 39 per cent supported major reductions and two years ago only 51 per cent did.
Although the number of people believing that immigration benefits the economy is marginally higher than two years ago, it is still a view held by less than a third of Britons, compared with almost half who see it as harmful.
Only one in three Britons believe immigration enriches Britain culturally, against 45 per cent who think it is detrimental.
Significantly, 54 per cent of those who see immigration as good for the economy still want to reduce it, including a quarter who would support severe reductions. Among those who see immigration as culturally beneficial, 55 per cent now support curbs.
Penny Young, chief executive of NatCen Social research, which conducted the study, said other issues not specifically covered by the questions – such as pressure on the NHS or housing – could be at work.
“Reducing immigration is technically about stopping more immigrants coming to Britain so it may well be that people have got to the point where they think that we are ‘full’,” she said.
“They may think that it has been good for the economy or culturally but that if it carries on it may have a problematic effect.”
Strikingly, the proportion of first or second generation immigrants who believe migration is good for the economy has slipped below half in the last two years. A quarter of migrants now even doubt that it immigration is even benefiting Britain culturally.
When responses were analysed along class lines, one of the most notable findings is that only a third of those in the top earnings bracket see immigration as bad for the economy compared with around half of those in the middle.
David Cameron has pledged to reduce net migration to the "tens of thousands" rather than hundreds of thousands . But figures published in November show it rose markedly ni the last year and now stands at 182,000.
Aked whether he thought the target was realistic, Mr Cable said: "It’s not sensible to have an arbitrary cap because most of the things under it can’t be controlled.
"So it involves British people emigrating - you can't control that. It involves free movement within the European Union - in and out. It involves British people coming back from overseas, who are not immigrants but who are counted in the numbers. So setting an arbitrary cap is not helpful, it almost certainly won’t achieve the below 100,000 level the Conservatives have set anyway, so let’s be practical about it."
Asked whether it was "nonsense", he said: "The idea it should come down to 100,000 is something the Liberal Democrats have never signed up to because we simply regard it as impractical."
Immigration is expected to dominate the agenda in the lead up to the European elections later this year and a General Election next year.
While the UK Independence Party is expected to take votes from the Conservatives over the issue, the study shows that Labour voters are the most sharply divided over immigration.
Similar proportions of Labour voters – roughly four out of 10 – see immigration as helping or harming the economy and Britain’s cultural life.
Government estimates a decade ago were that around 13,000 people from Eastern European member states would come to Britain a year. According to the ONS there are now just over a million people from Poland and the seven other countries which joined the EU in 2004 living in the UK.
“The predications were completely catastrophic,” Mr Straw told the programme.
“I mean they were wrong by a factor of 10.
“On immigration, it was bluntly a nightmare and it got more and more difficult”
Mr Blunkett addeds that the Treasury was convinced that the economic benefits would outweigh the disadvantages.
“We didn’t spell out in words of one syllable what was happening, partly because of a fear of racism” he said.