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Hard Evidence: how does the public feel about immigration?

It is “immigration week” on Sky News – but, to be fair, most weeks are immigration week across large parts of the media. In many ways, this is only right – immigration is an issue of huge national importance…

Border control: the biggest group of migrants to Britain is students. Martin Rickett/PA Wire

It is “immigration week” on Sky News – but, to be fair, most weeks are immigration week across large parts of the media. In many ways, this is only right – immigration is an issue of huge national importance to the public, in the top three issues in our regular polling for many years, behind only the economy and unemployment.

And this has been driven by real changes in immigrant numbers, not a phantom concern: we were relatively unconcerned before numbers increased in the late 1990s as the chart below shows.

But the nature of media focus is almost unique, driven to such a large extent by what the public think should happen - and how at odds that is from what has actually happened. Only welfare comes close to having such a public opinion-driven agenda, and even here there are nothing like the number and variety of measures of attitudes.

For many months now we have been conducting a detailed review of attitudes to immigration and how they relate to reality, for Unbound Philanthropy – and many times I’ve wished we hadn’t started it. The volume and variety of public opinion polling on immigration is frightening.

It’s not surprising then that new polls often tell us very little – or that they are often presented as the revelation of a new direction in public opinion when they’re clearly not. Take the poll Sky News has released to support its “Immigration UK” project. Their headline finding of 67% wanting drastic action to reduce immigration is deeply predictable, but presented as a sign of a “fundamental shift” where the public are “increasingly saying no more”.

Nothing could be further from the truth: while we weren’t raising it as a top issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s, almost exactly the same two-thirds were saying there were too many immigrants or that numbers should be reduced.

And there are many more traps in the gaps between opinion, reality and our interpretation - within an overall crystal clear picture that the large majority of people want overall immigration reduced. Here are just a few.

Extent and nature of immigration

We hugely overestimate the extent of immigration. When asked to guess at the proportion they make up of the population, the mean is 31% (median 26%), compared with an actual proportion of 13% (14% if you include the upper estimate of illegal immigration). Now this is not new, or unique to the UK: in fact all other countries we’ve seen measuring this find the same, although we tend to overestimate more than most.

We also have a very wrong idea of who immigrants are – our “imagined immigration” as Scott Blinder has termed it, is way off. When asked who comes to mind, we are much more likely to think of asylum seekers and refugees and much less likely to think of students. As the chart below shows, we get it the wrong way round: asylum-seekers are in fact the smallest of the main immigrant groups, students the largest.

It is no coincidence that our overestimate is of a group we’re worried about and we underestimate a group we’re relatively positive about. This is sometimes taken as evidence that we need to educate the public: if we knew the real scale and nature of immigration, we’d worry less.

Of course, this will be true to some extent – but there are other explanations. We need to recognise that cause and effect in these type of estimation questions run both ways. We have “motivated reasoning” when answering them: we don’t just have “accuracy goals” in mind, we also have “directional goals”. Whether consciously or not, we may be trying to express our concern about the scale of immigration or particular groups of migrants as much as we are concerned to get the right answer.

So it is arguable that our worry may cause our overestimation and focus on more problematic groups as much as the other way around – social psychologists call this “emotional innumeracy”.

The important practical point here is that “myth-busting” exercises are likely to have limited impact on people’s concerns. But equally, there is a significant danger in accepting that our inaccurate picture of immigration is fine because it partly reflects our concerns and emotional reactions: both are partial.


From looking across independent reviews of the economic, labour market and fiscal impacts of immigration, it seems fairly clear the aggregate effects are not huge (at a per capita level at least), but in general terms, the net fiscal impact is probably the most positive (if only because immigrants have tended to be younger and more economically active than the native population).

But public opinion is most negative on the fiscal impact: we’re most likely to be worried about the benefit and public service impact of immigrants from these sorts of topics.

But of course, this is also entirely understandable. First, people will not have a whole system perspective on the fiscal contribution of immigrants: the tax contribution of immigrants is invisible, but their use of services and receipt of benefits will be visible to many directly and especially through the media.

Second, people will not see supply of services as elastic: more money per head may come in as a result of immigration, but local services will not be seen to scale up to reflect the increased numbers, at least in the short-term. Whether rational or not, it is difficult for any policy-maker to win this argument.

Surveys are too broad

An important limitation of the large majority of survey data on attitudes to “immigration” is that they attempt to sum up views under a single and undefined label, leaving each respondent to answer on the basis of their own unstated conception of who “immigrants” are - which, as we have seen, will often be inaccurate.

A good illustration of this is seen in the fact that a majority of us believe that “immigrants” both take jobs from native workers and create jobs in the community. This is not because people are stupid, they will just have had a different mental image of immigrants when answering the questions.

And we do have very varied views. As Rob Ford’s analysis of the 2011 British Social Attitudes Survey illustrates, when migrants were described as professionals, net support for settlement in the UK is very positive, regardless of the migrants’ origin or motive for migrating. When migrants were described as unskilled labourers, net support was negative, in each combination with region and motive.

Knowledge vacuum

There is some concern about an immigration “arms race”, where political parties out-do each other in their toughness on immigration. Some of this may be due to a further perception gap: that people just do not know what’s already been put in place by this and previous governments, as the table below from Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling shows.

Overall, then, any government or political party has real problems on immigration: concern is high, views ill-informed, government is not trusted, they have limited policy levers they can pull, and the areas in their control are the ones people are least concerned about (such as students and highly-skilled non-EU workers).

These issues are not that new or unique: Gary Freeman developed the “policy gap hypothesis” in 1994 to explain why immigration policy was consistently less restrictive than the public seem to demand, across a range of countries. But the scale of the disconnect between opinion and perceptions of policy in the UK is so huge that, while we can be critical of the quality of the debate and particular policies, it is difficult to blame the government for trying to get closer to where most people are. The real challenge is to do this without reinforcing ill-informed prejudices and shoring up misperceptions.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Roger Warren Evans

    Retired Barrister and Company Director at J Sainsbury plc

    UK Immigration: Hard Evidence and Public Attitudes

    Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI, presents an illuminating analysis, but reaches a deeply shocking conclusion. As a retired Barrister of 77, I have spent the last eight years of my life working, as a voluntary legal representative for asylum-seekers denied Legal Aid by the Government’s wrongful Merits Test (in England and Wales - though not in Scotland, where the Government has maintained higher ethical standards).

    I have lived…

    Read more
    1. Bobby Duffy

      Managing Director, Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London

      In reply to Roger Warren Evans

      Thanks Roger - I have to say I agree the conclusion could be better explained - it will be in the longer review published later this year.

      But I do believe it is difficult to blame the government (or indeed Labour who have also shifted position) for trying to understand and move closer to public opinion - but that doesn't mean I agree with each of the specific ways in which that is being done. There is still a lot of interpretation and decisions to be made in how you get closer to opinion…

      Read more
    2. Roger Warren Evans

      Retired Barrister and Company Director at J Sainsbury plc

      In reply to Bobby Duffy

      Thanks, Bobby, for your thoughtful reply - I think our differences lie in our backgrounds - yours scientific, and mine probably more "political" - concerned with "oughts" rather than "is-es" . I do think, however, that it would be better not to draw any "ought" conclusions from an excellent scientific analysis such as yours - because for my part I certainly DO blame our political leaders for their failure to address the emotional dimensions of the immigration issue, manifestly failing to separate…

      Read more
    3. Bobby Duffy

      Managing Director, Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London

      In reply to Roger Warren Evans

      Thanks Roger - the main aim of the review is to do exactly that - lay out the opinion evidence as an authoritative source for people to draw their own conclusions. I would love to keep that completely separate from any view of the politics of it - but I find it very difficult in practice, particularly in short pieces where you can't give the full picture.

      But I have expanded the final para to reflect more closely my view on the difficult line that needs to be trod on this, from an opinion researcher's perspective.

    4. Roger Warren Evans

      Retired Barrister and Company Director at J Sainsbury plc

      In reply to Bobby Duffy

      Thanks Bobby - we may,however, have to agree to disagree - I thought The Conversation article was admirably objective, balanced, non-"political", scientific in spirit - until I read the final paragraph!

      We live in troubled and divisive times, and everyone (particularly those in positions of public influence, as Ipsos MORI undoubtedly is) - must watch their language. I adhere to my advice to you: cut the political judgment, and leave that to others. I would say that is the right "stance" for…

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    1. Roger Warren Evans

      Retired Barrister and Company Director at J Sainsbury plc

      In reply to Kenny Black


      How to Read the Graphics

      It was the same for me, initially - I could not read the graphics - but below each graph there was a green "Enlarge" button, which made everything readable - the problem was that I could not actually print-off the enlarged graph on its own, and had to print all the prior-pages every time, as well - so I have several surplus copies of the the article available, having destroyed a few more tropical woodlands...

      Roger Warren Evans

    2. Bobby Duffy

      Managing Director, Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London

      In reply to Kenny Black

      Kenny - we've redone graphics - should be easier to see now if you go back in/refresh

  2. Christopher Moxon

    Paediatric Doctor/ Clinical Research Fellow

    I couldn't agree more strongly with Roger Warren Evans. I agree that Bobby Duffy's article is a very helpful and informative summary of many important issues on the subject of immigration but I don't understand why he feels that Politicians should be allowed to be so irresponsible. A difficulty with the Democratic system is that in order to get in power you must win peoples votes but this does not excuse politicians totally abandoning principles. Failing to draw peoples attention to the facts is bad enough but actively reinforcing nationalist bigotry - as both sides of parliament have in the past year, is utterly indefensible. In fact both parties have emerged very badly from their distasteful 'Go Home' and 'British jobs for British people' fiascoes and how much better might a party have done by a carefully conceived drive to explain the truth about immigration and expose such incorrect chauvinist rhetoric rather than reinforcing it.

  3. joames

    logged in via Twitter

    You guys are completely missing the point.

    The real issue is not surround the public perceptions of whether immigrants are 'good or bad', 'on welfare or not', 'committing crimes' etc..

    Most UK citizens are reasonable folk, we have - all of us - met people from far off lands, and despite a hint of bigotry here and there, we all know of hard working immigrants and so real attitudes are muted.

    The *real* issue is the overwhelming number of immigrants of various cultures, who pose an existential…

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    1. Roger Warren Evans

      Retired Barrister and Company Director at J Sainsbury plc

      In reply to joames

      When I "waltz" down a London street, or ride on a London bus, I see a contented community of diverse individuals, all with the same common concerns (such as earning a living, getting to work on time, getting the children to school, visiting the dentist), and all content to enjoy the richness of London life - they are all of different ethnicities and "colours" but we all share a delight and a sense of privilege of being in London. That is the making of London, and its success as a human settlement. London, for all its problems, is a fabulous example of a successful modern city - and long may it last. My hope is that it will not be constrained in its development by the counter-claims of "proprietary" natives - whatever their colour or ethnicity.

      Roger Warren Evans Swansea UK

  4. Lisa Walsh

    Neuroscience student

    From a scientific viewpoint, immigration doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

    We seem to innately/subconsciously know, but guilt seems to override reason. We're so hung up about not offending anyone that we daren't say the bleeding obvious. But at the same time we're so incredibly arrogant/condescending as to assume that we know what's best for others from different cultures and of different biology.

    History shows how often we've got it wrong, yet we keep doing more wrong. We ignore people's…

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  5. Lisa Walsh

    Neuroscience student

    I just wish we didn't dwell on what's going on inside our heads and focus more on what's going on around us and to us...

    Why can't we focus on evidence and not friggin' public opinion which is largely a product of the media.

    I seem to be the only one who thinks this way...?!?!