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04 December 2023

Economic migration: the view from a citizens' jury

We brought people together to listen to experts and consider the issues in depth

Immigration Check

Immigration has, once again, been making headlines and causing political headaches for the government. Suella Braverman, who until recently oversaw migration policy as home secretary, called new figures released by the Office for National Statistics a “slap in the face to the British public who have voted to control and reduce migration at every opportunity” – but does that reflect the reality of opinion in the country?

Media stories both reflect and shape public attitudes, and there were two big ones recently. First, the ONS announced that net migration for 2022 had been revised upwards to a record high of 745,000 – driven largely by student numbers and people coming here on the health and social care visa. At the same time, the Supreme Court’s judgement of 15 November upheld a previous judgement from the Court of Appeal that concluded the government cannot remove people to Rwanda, as laid out in the Illegal Migration Bill.

Despite this, the latest Ipsos Issues Index shows there are still more pressing concerns for the public. The economy (38%), inflation/prices (35%) and the NHS (31%) are all seen as bigger priorities than immigration, which is a concern for one in five (22%) adults. Of these, it is particularly an issue for Conservative voters (39%), people aged 65 and over (37%) and men (25%).

It was against this backdrop that researchers from the Policy Institute at King’s College London convened a citizens’ jury in St Albans to deliver their verdict on whether the points-based system for economic migrants should be reformed.

Citizens’ juries are a form of deliberative “mini public” in which a small group of participants – in this case a diverse group of 15 people, with a range of perspectives on migration – meet over multiple days to deliberate on a specific policy issue and provide recommendations. Like in a courtroom, they hear evidence which is intended to provide them with balanced views and a range of perspectives on the topic in question. They have the opportunity to cross-examine expert witnesses, before working together to discuss the implications and reach consensus.

All participants were able to speak to the benefits of economic migration. There was a sense that without the hard work of people from overseas, our public services would not function, that migrants do the work that people born in the UK do not always want to do. And the jury felt that this work is not valued as it should be: “Isn’t it slightly embarrassing that we can’t care for our own?”

They also mentioned the very many social and cultural benefits of immigration. Rather than posing a threat to traditions, migrants were thought to enrich our lives in many ways. Most importantly, those who move to the UK to work were seen as filling important skills gaps in our society, often in professions that have profound social value (particularly those working in the NHS and carers). For many who felt this way, they wanted to see more focus on incentivising people to move to the UK to fill shortages, rather than deterring them. But these positives did not blind participants to the challenges posed by high levels of migration. They spoke about the pressure on public services – long waits for GP appointments, overcrowded classrooms – as well as demand for affordable housing outstripping supply.

As a result, there was a desire for the points-based migration system to be reformed – though not completely overhauled. There are elements of the current system that participants thought were worth retaining. For example, qualifying criteria that focuses on an ability to speak English to a certain level was thought important in the interests of promoting social cohesion, while a job offer from an approved sponsor was seen as a guarantee that those coming to the country would be able to contribute economically.

But outside of this, change was thought to be needed. On the one hand, they called for more stringent measures to help manage risk around who comes to the UK. Health and crime checks for all migrants and the introduction of an age cap were seen by some participants as a desirable quality of other points-based systems around the world. Both were seen as a means by which the country can continue to benefit from the labour and contribution of workers from overseas, while reducing the likelihood of them being a strain on already stretched public services. However, such caps were polarising, as others felt they were unfairly discriminatory and not reflective of the UK’s values.

Some also suggested a cap on overall numbers, while others argued that in practice this would be unworkable and wouldn’t allow the flexibility that the economy needs.

However, participants also wanted more help and support for migrant workers – particularly for those doing valuable work caring for the sick and elderly. Some suggested interest-free loans to those working in health and social care. Participants questioned how they could be expected to find the money required to settle in a new country on what they assumed would be low wages: “Care workers on the front line get paid £25K – how can they be expected to support themselves?”

Participants also urged more responsible reporting of immigration statistics. They noted that while the net migration figure is at a record high, this is predominantly made up of those coming to work in the health and social care sector – posts which urgently need to be filled – and students who want a world-class education, not a route to permanent residency. Disaggregating this was thought to be an essential first step in building trust in the system.

But participants also cautioned that reforming the migration system alone will not be enough, and that unless broader changes are enacted, the situation will stay the same.

In particular, they wanted to see a fairer pay settlement for those working in health and social care. Not only would this reflect the value participants attach to these jobs, but by improving working conditions UK-born workers may be more likely to find these roles attractive.

They also strongly advocated for the government to instigate a long-term skills strategy. Through strategic planning for and investment in the skills we will need in the future, it was thought that the country’s continued dependence on migration would be lessened:

“We can’t just keep taking short-term view that we’ll cherry pick talented people from abroad, but won’t bother to train or incentivise people here. Our health sector is key. Just pay them properly, and train them properly and people will want to do it.”

This study also highlights that we need new ways of engaging people in policy debates and involving them in our democratic processes. Distrust in the political system is entrenched – there may be no new crisis of trust but we should be worried that the country’s low confidence in political and other institutions, which stands out in comparison to other nations, has become normalised.

Participants told us that, when it comes to migration, the government has distracted the public from the real issue by focusing almost exclusively on the issue of small boats, when this represents just a tiny fraction of those coming to the UK. They also questioned how possible it would be to develop a sustainable migration system which focuses on the future skills needs of the country, when politicians think in terms of five-year election cycles.

Some participants therefore wondered if it would be feasible to develop a standing citizens’ assembly. Comprising experts and the public, it could meet regularly to review existing policies and develop new approaches, making recommendations that could then be taken forward by parliament.

Taking the migration debate out of the hands of politicians would mean decisions could be made in the interests of the country, not party politics. And would mean that our policies reflect the realities on the ground, and the concerns of the people.

Deliberative mini publics offer a genuine model of participation and, at a time when our institutions are under threat from the forces of populism, represent a tried and tested way of doing democracy differently.

Suzanne Hall is Director of Engagement at the Policy Institute, King’s College London. Dr Kirstie Hewlett is a Research Fellow at the Policy Institute, King's College London.

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