Too often public opinion about migration is based on false information

80 per cent of the people arriving in the UK over the last year for work had a visa tied to a job to start when they got here


For years, immigration has consistently ranked among the top concerns in surveys of the British public. In response, political leaders have repeatedly made efforts to show that they can bring it under control.

During the last election, the Conservative Party reiterated its ‘ambition’ to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands and it has since made attempts to make the UK a less appealing destination for migrants by reducing their access to health, welfare or education services.

And yet the views expressed in public opinion surveys are often based on misinformation and false assumptions. This matters because it restricts the available space for envisioning and debating different approaches to the issue.

For over 15 years, a majority of respondents to public opinion surveys from Ipsos Mori have considered there to be ‘too many immigrants’. Yet the same organisation has also found that on average people also over-estimate the amount of migrants that there are in the country by double.

Similarly, the British Social Attitudes survey from 2013 found that a majority of the British population considered that the costs of EU and non-EU workers outweighed the benefits.  In contrast, research has found that between 2000 and 2011 immigrants have made a net contribution to the country’s finances, paying in more in taxes than they use in services and benefits. 

A further range of myths, such as that there is a vastly greater number of asylum seekers in the UK than is the case, is addressed in the latest publication from Class and Migrants Rights Network, Changing the debate on migration.

However, the problem is not just that people don’t know the facts: it is that they don’t trust political leaders to tell them the truth. Policies that are based on being tough and in control, such as setting targets, have failed. As a result, the British public has been consistently dissatisfied with the way its governments have tried to deal with immigration.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats suffered from declining public confidence on the issue and polling after their term in government has found half the population to consider immigration to still be the most important issue facing the country today. Attempts to be tough and in control have neither reduced immigration levels nor raised public confidence in our political leaders.

In a global era, international migration is an inescapable reality. Furthermore, migration, particularly between parts of the world with long-established historical connections, cannot be easily switched on or off.

For this reason immigration policies often fail at meeting their declared objectives. But that is not to say that immigration is out of control. For example, the latest migration statistics showed that of the people arriving in the UK over the last year for work, 80 per cent were arriving with a visa tied to a job to start when they got here.

Over the last parliament, the slight decline and more recent rise of net migration to Britain could be more easily explained by the national economy and availability of jobs than by government efforts to manage the phenomenon. As noted by Philip Legrain, those who arrive often do the jobs that locals don’t want, or start their own businesses which contribute further to the economy.

At the moment, false assumptions and distrust mean that few public figures openly consider what our country might look like without an overbearing focus on being tough and getting the numbers down. A constructive debate need not push for open borders, but at least should provide a chance to imagine the pros and cons of alternative ways of living with migration.

Simon McMahon is a research fellow at Coventry University

To download a copy of the pamphlet by Class and the Migrants Rights Network, click here

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34 Responses to “Too often public opinion about migration is based on false information”

  1. NHSGP

    There is a problem with your claim that migrants pay their way.

    This is the Cream research on whether or not migrants pay their way.

    So where are the facts in the paper?

    You have to go to table 4b and table 5. That has the costs.

    Add up the numbers for all migrants and the UK is down on the deal.

    Even with the dodgy assumption in the foot notes of table 4b.

    Just under 100 bn of money has been paid supporting migrants.

  2. Jacko

    The thing is, Simon, if the majority of respondents consider there to be too many immigrants, then there are too many immigrants. This is what the Left doesn’t understand. You can’t overcome people’s perceptions by quoting statistics at them. It just comes across as distant intellectualism.

  3. Ellis Greenwood

    This still doesn’t cover the fact that the countries infrastructure was built in mind for only 55-60 million people, yet we’re now at 65 million people (or will be soon enough) with the biggest driver for this population growth immigration, and the resulting offspring of immigrants. Also international migration is absolutely avoidable, I mean FFS just look at Japan, they let very few people into their country, even with a sharply declining population, which is what western politicians always tell us is why immigration is a good thing (it’s not for any of the major European countries, at such the scale we have been seeing).

  4. GhostofJimMorisson

    Again, the Left reducing the immigration argument sole to economics and GDP. Most people couldn’t give two hoots whether or not immigrants have work visas prior to coming here. They are more concerned about numbers, school places, the strain on the NHS, their neighbourhoods changing beyond recognition to name but a few.

    Philip Legrain – do not get me started on that buffoon. And let’s just address something: ‘As noted by Philip Legrain, those who arrive often do the jobs that locals don’t want’.

    No, Phil, they do the jobs YOU don’t want to do. This suggestion that immigrants are doing the jobs Brits won’t do is not only (largely) a fallacy, but bloody insulting.

  5. GhostofJimMorisson

    Well put.

  6. madasafish

    Ah yes: the “Class and the Migrant Rights Network” stands for anyone except UK citizens.

    Nuff said

  7. Louis Tierney

    But it states in the article that, “on average people also over- estimate the amount of migrants that there are in the country by double.” These perceptions that people hold are due to – as the article title states – based on false information

  8. jj

    Its not all about sheer money for heavens sake!
    I’ve been to both Riga and Vilnius very recently, presently at Vilnius. What I have realised is that these countries, even in the capitals, have indeed preserved their culture. Folk singing galore, beautiful churches packed full of people. Compare that to London, what is London’s distinctive culture? It doesn’t have one anymore, instead hundreds, and it feels incredibly uncomfortable with itself, unlike most capitals, its lost much of its soul.

  9. damon

    All this ”doing the jobs others don’t want” is really annoying.
    Maybe not doing those jobs for those low wages and conditions.
    Then make the jobs more attractive.

    When I do deliveries of building materials to sites around greater London, Eastern European workers must outnumber black English guys by about five hundred to one.
    Yet go down to the Hackney job centre and its full of young black British signing on as unemployed.
    Working on a building site or inside an existing house doing decorating or refurbishing work is not the worst job in the world at all. In fact it can be a really good way to make a living as there is often a freedom and comradeship that you don’t get in an office job or working in other ”crap” jobs.

    I went to a big site in SW London last week and the old Irish guy who took my stuff off with a forklift, told me he was practically the only one who spoke English on site. There were a dozen Romanians actually living in the basement of the building site he told me. They had driven up directly from Romania in a couple of vans.

  10. Chris Kitcher

    What a stupid comment. Peoples perceptions are fed by our racist Tory government that attacks the weakest to further the cause of the rich. You can overcome peoples perceptions by educating them to realise the facts and numbers involved.

  11. Giles Farthing

    London is cracking under the strain, tubes are massively overloaded, you can’t see a GP for weeks, forget trying to get a dentist, getting your kid into an already overcrowded school in itself is a total nightmare, the roads are clogged to breaking point the hospitals are at breaking point, house prices through the roof. the left tell us its because of austerity. its not its toooooo many people, how is that hard to understand! then you say oh yeah no its fine, we need more immigration

  12. GhostofJimMorisson

    It really angers me when leftwing academics and journalists, who have never done a days’ hard/physical graft in their lives, pontificate about ‘lazy’ Brits who won’t do ‘immigrant’ work. Then they lecture us about how hard working Eastern Europeans are. Having worked alongside many I wouldn’t disagree; but I worked alongside just as many hardworking Brits, doing physical jobs Phillip Legraine wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Then there’s the issue of hundreds of thousands of UK jobs being advertised only in Poland and other Eastern European countries. I think it’s pretty appaling that our young people are now having to directly compete with 500 million people across the EU for jobs

  13. GhostofJimMorisson

    There were a dozen Romanians actually living in the basement of the building site he told me. They had driven up directly from Romania in a couple of vans.

    Blatant exploitation. There’s much handwringing from the left about this, but they will not accept that mass immigration and freedom of movement is grossly exacerbating this problem. Unscrupulous employers will always find ways to reduce labour costs, and so long as there’s an army of people willing to work for much less than native British then it will never end. But being nice, tolerant, embracing diversity and welcoming foreigners is clearly more important for the left, not to mention the trade unions, who have done sod all to stop this and protect British workers.

  14. GhostofJimMorisson

    You’re living in a fantasy land. I’ve banged on hundreds of doors in staunch Labour areas and almost always the number one issue for them is mass, uncontrolled immigration. People don’t need Tory propaganda to see how it is affecting their communties. And we know all about the numbers – 330,000 this year alone, or a city the size of Liverpool. Too much, too fast, too soon.

  15. Godfrey Paul

    Uncontrolled immigraiton has put British workers out of jobs, kept their wages low, increased rents, lengthened queues for NHS services and put greater pressure on our social services.

    And on top of that are the cultural costs of immigration

  16. Godfrey Paul

    Londonistan !

  17. GhostofJimMorisson

    In contrast, research has found that between 2000 and 2011 immigrants have made a net contribution to the country’s finances, paying in more in taxes than they use in services and benefits.

    These studies suggest, overall, immigration has had little if any impact on GDP.

    As does this

  18. Chris Kitcher

    I’m afraid that your comment only serves to highlight the deplorable state of British politics now that we have a PR person as Prime Minister and not a very good PR person at that.

    Selling trinkets and other rubbish to the public depends on manufacturers listening to the wants of the public who they are looking to sell to and then providing what they want.

    Politics on the other hand is about making a better, fairer society for all who live in it. This means on occasions, immigration is one of them, politicians should be leading public opinion by referring to the many authoritative articles that demonstrate the benefits to the UK of immigration.

    Instead too many of the great uneducated British public prefer to believe the bile, vitriol and racist rantings of such papers as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express as well as several other right wing rags.

    This of course is not helped by our racist Tory government forever riding on the back of the poor and vulnerable immigrants and producing the rotten society in which we are now forced to reside.

  19. GhostofJimMorisson

    Instead too many of the great uneducated British public prefer to believe the bile, vitriol and racist rantings of such papers as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express as well as several other right wing rags.

    Sheer arrogance. Why do lefties blame all their failures on the right wing media? The British public repeatedly reject socialism: the influence of the mass media! Why did Labour fail so dismally at the last election: a smear campaign by the right wind media – those shady cabals of Zionists pulling the strings of government puppets. It’s nonsense. And I’d like to see evidence of why you think the Tories are racist. Perhaps someone should tell Sajid David.

  20. Chris Kitcher

    Open your eyes and ears Dimbo. “Swarms of Immigrants”, refusal to allow any genuine immigrants into the UK, discriminatory sanctions against welfare benefits for immigrants how many more examples do you want to make you see what are the plain disgusting facts. Sadly whilst there are idiots like you falling hook line and sinker for the racist diatribe by the Tories the UK will become ever more like Nazi Germany.

  21. David McKendrick


  22. Tom

    I grew up in an area that was >97% white British. There was no distinctive preserved culture. What would you like to blame that on?

  23. Snowmuncher

    The issue is that immigration is a very mixed bag, with extremes of good and bad, Your argument implies it is homogeneous. If you take non-EU immigration the most beneficial economically is the US, Canadian, Antipodean, Japanese immigration etc, often working in senior well paid jobs in the City and West end, in design, arts and advertising, and they tend to leave the UK at the end, pay enormous taxes, use few services, send their children to private schools and provide know-how and investment.

    At the other end are asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East, many of whom do not even speak English. They will likely be unemployed or on low salaries probably paying zero tax or getting tax credits, free housing, free education and free healthcare, have a large number of children each of whom costs between £4500 and £10,000 a year to put through State schools.

    The former are in the minority in terms of numbers but the enormous taxes they pay partly offsets the negative contribution of the latter. How fallacious to lump together and then make an argument based on that.

    That’s economically. It is absurdly obvious that someone from the US or Australia is far more likely to be socially cohesive in the UK than a Somalian who speaks no English, is Muslim and may well come from an environment in which women are stoned to death for adultery and in which homosexuals are killed.

  24. GhostofJimMorisson

    Can’t fault you on anything there.

  25. bramhall

    “2000 and 2011 immigrants have made a net contribution to the country’s finances, paying in more in taxes than they use in services and benefits”

    I am fed up with continuously hearing this inaccurate and misleading statement . The research organisation quoted by the BBC showed that only EU immigrants lade a positive contribution to the country’s finances. Between 2000 and 2011 non EU immigrants took out £100 billion pre in benefits than they contributed in taxes. Since this latter group also include very highly paid US, Australian Canadian professionals and executives, it is clear that Britain is paying a huge subsidy to large numbers of immigrants from such places as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Eritrea to live on taxpayer provided welfare, housing benefit, child benefit etc.

  26. madasafish


    Mass migration is driving down the wages being offered to British jobseekers, a major report by the Bank of England has found.

    Economists at the Bank found that increases in immigration have reduced the pay on offer to care workers, waiting staff, and cleaners, as the competition for these jobs has risen.

    YOU are the one talking spherical objects based on prejudice.

  27. David McKendrick

    Empirical research on the labour market effects of immigration to the
    UK finds little overall adverse impact on wages and employment for the
    UK-born. The empirical evidence shows that:

    Immigrants and native-born workers are not close substitutes on
    average (existing migrants are closer substitutes for new migrants).
    This means that UK-born workers are, on average, cushioned from rises in supply caused by immigration.

    The less skilled are closer substitutes for immigrants than the more
    highly skilled. So any pressures from increased competition for jobs is
    more likely to be found among less skilled workers. But these effects are small.

    There is no evidence that EU migrants affect the labour market performance of native-born workers.

  28. David McKendrick

    What do you want? Dancing round a maypole or Morris dancing?
    In Scotland our native culture seems to have been preserved – highland dancing, tartan, bagpipes etc but I don’t know what culture you would expect to be distinctive of London? Not only does London not have a distinctive culture any more but it has never had a British culture since the Romans created London over 2000 years ago.

  29. Sky Pixie

    This article is designed to mislead. EU migrants are cost beneficial, non-Eu cost money mostly due to low work-place participation see for the facts then judge for yourself

  30. jj

    I think you know what I’m saying. London has changed at such a fast pace this past 70 years, so so fast, end of the stability (relative) that we have been seeing before the start of slum clearances, it has caused fractured communities, I should know, my family has seen Woolwich change into a rather ominous part of London, where it used to be a safe community.

  31. David Murphy

    Well that is ok then, only the poor suffer, and you wonder why Labour voters are deserting you for UKIP?

  32. David McKendrick

    Labour voters are not deserting me. I live in Scotland where only 1% of voters voted for UKIP. The poor are not suffering because of a few migrants. They are suffering because the Tory government is determined to reduce Welfare payments to the low paid.

  33. Thanks Tank

    The only time the left sound like ultra free market enthusiasts is when it is about immigration.

    Open borders and large immigration is the free market at its core.

    It is why the Tories have not or will not challenge large immigration numbers.

    It is a fat cat policy, that is why so many in Labour always opposed it, why Keir Hardie opposed it.

  34. bobrob22

    We need to look at the problems the UK will face in trying to find work for these immigrants and their children as increasing automation/robotics removes even more jobs from our economy over the next 20/30 years

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