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28 October 2018

Public wrong on key facts around Brexit and impact of EU membership

The public misperceive reality of Brexit and the UK's relationship with the EU

Brexit misperceptions
Brexit misperceptions

The British public are wrong on key facts around Brexit and the UK’s relationship with the EU, a new study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, in partnership with Ipsos MORI and the UK in a Changing Europe, finds.

The study takes findings from the recent government-commissioned Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report and tests these against public perceptions, alongside other facts:

  • EU immigrants’ contribution to public finances: Only 29% of the public correctly think that immigrants from European countries pay £4.7bn more in taxes than they receive in welfare benefits and services. Leave supporters are least likely to correctly identify that this is the case (16%) and most likely to wrongly think that European immigrants contribute less than they take out (42%).

  • Crime: 56% of the public and 75% of Leave supporters think that European immigration has increased crime levels, when evidence from the MAC report finds no link.

  • Healthcare: 39% of the public and 53% of Leave supporters think that European immigration has led to a decline in the quality of healthcare services in the UK, when evidence from the MAC report shows this isn’t the case.

  • £350m claim: Two-thirds of the public (67%) have heard of the claim that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU, and 42% of these believe it is true, despite it being labelled a “misuse of statistics” by the UK Statistics Authority. 
  • Unemployment: Half of the public (47%) and 61% of Leave supporters believe that unemployment among lower-skilled workers has increased as a result of European immigration, despite the MAC report concluding there is “little or no impact”.

  • Immigration levels: People overestimate the proportion of the UK population that is from an EU country by a factor of almost three, thinking it’s 16% when it’s only 6%. 

But there are three facts the public are much more accurate on:

  • They guess that 40% of UK exports go to EU countries, when the actual figure is 43%.
  • The largest group (47%) correctly identify that European immigration has increased house prices.
  • They correctly think that European immigration has had relatively little impact on unemployment among highly skilled workers and the wage levels of both lower-skilled and higher-skilled workers.

Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute, said:

“We have had over two years and seemingly endless discussion of our relationship with Europe since the EU referendum – but still the public get a huge amount wrong.

“The best available evidence from a government-commissioned report is that the impact of immigration on our public finances, crime rates and health services is positive or neutral. But the perception among large proportions of the population is that the EU immigration has increased crime, taken money out of the system and decreased the quality of health services.

“These misperceptions are not all about us being misled or our own ignorance of the facts – they are more emotional than that. We exaggerate what we worry about, so what we get wrong is as much a reflection of our concerns. Attempting to change people’s views of Brexit just with a more evidence-based description won’t be enough, and misses a large part of the point. The hugely varied views of these realities lay bare how differently different groups of the population see our relationship with the EU, and how ingrained and difficult it will be to find common ground.”

Professor Anand Menon, Director of the UK in a Changing Europe, said:

“The evidence here underlines the scale of the challenge facing those interested in improving public knowledge about, and understanding of, key policy issues. Overcoming misperceptions is a necessary and urgent task, and one that is far more challenging that many assume.”


Amendment 2 November 2018

The original release of the study included the following finding:

  • EU investment: The public hugely underestimate how much of our investment comes from EU countries: the average guess is 36%, when the actual figure was 63% in 2016

While this reality figure is correct, following helpful feedback, we agree it is important to include a clear qualification and encourage caution in its use, because the 2016 figure is a very significant outlier. 

The figure is the net foreign direct investment into the UK in 2016, from ONS data (‘Foreign direct investment involving UK companies’ dataset released by the ONS on December 1, 2017). 

It is our practice in all misperception studies to draw on the most up to date available data, as we are interested in perceptions of as current as possible realities. However, net foreign direct investment figures vary significantly year-on-year, and 2016 was particularly unusual.

The ONS notes that “Net flows of FDI into the UK (inward flows) increased from £25.3 billion in 2015 to £145.6 billion in 2016, the largest value recorded since the comparable time series began in 2006. The large value of inward FDI flows recorded were dominated by a handful of high-value M&A deals in 2016; large publicly reported transactions in 2016 included the acquisitions of SAB Miller, ARM Holdings and BG Group.”

The differences are significant: actual annual and cumulative investment over recent years are lower than the public’s estimate (for example, cumulative investment from EU countries in the period 2007-2016 were 27% of the total investment into the UK). 

It should be noted in this context that in a 2016 study we asked people to estimate the country/region sources of the total stock of c£1,034 billion international investment into the UK, and the average guess for EU countries was 30%, compared with a reality (based on the most up to date data at the time, from 2014) of 48%. So people underestimated that figure too. 

However, while again factually correct, more recent level of investment from EU countries, which are likely to be in people’s minds when answering the question, are significantly lower. 

We therefore conclude that the most useful and transparent approach is to still report these findings, but with clear qualifications and to suggest caution in their interpretation. 

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