UK immigration policy

Your opinion at the start - stage 1/6


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Immigration is a major public concern but inevitable in the 21st century. How can we reconcile these two points and help Britain benefit?

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Lead researcher: Chris Underwood. Additional research and editing: Paul Eustice and Perry Walker.

Drag these using the arrow symbol () so that they are in order, most preferred at the top

  • Focus on reducing illegal immigrants
  • Limit net migration (for instance, 100,000 per year)
  • Deter / reduce EU migrants
  • Focus on the human impact of immigration to ensure it does not negatively affect citizens or public services in the UK
  • Restrict settlement (permission to stay permanently in the UK) so that migrants mainly remain on a temporary basis


This topic was prepared before the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU in June 2016. It will be revised when the dust has cleared!

What kind of problem are we discussing?

We could see immigration as a problem because of:

1) the number of people we want to live here

2) the kind of people we want to live here.

In the latter case, is the concern with their ability to support themselves or with the nature of their difference? What kind of difference causes a problem: wealth, talent, religion, language, colour, dietary habits? Does it matter how great or how obvious those differences are? Should immigrants assimilate (conform to what they find) or integrate (join with the existing inhabitants to create a new culture)? Many arguments about immigration confuse these issues. We need to be clear what we are arguing about.

When did the ‘problem’ arise?

We have always had immigrants to the UK. French speaking Huguenots were offered sanctuary in 1681, Jews have been variously welcomed and persecuted since 1066 and the Irish arrived in significant numbers in the 19th century, helping to solve a labour shortage. As populations settled, just before the Second World War, citizens identified as being ‘ethnic minority groups’ numbered just a few thousand. Then, in 1948 citizens of all Commonwealth countries, including India and Pakistan, were granted the right to live and work in Britain without restriction.

This was done to preserve the significance of the British Empire as it broke up. It was assumed only wealthy or middle class members of Commonwealth countries would come, in limited numbers. Instead, nearly 500,000 people arrived, mainly low income migrants from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean.

Although unrestricted immigration was ended for Commonwealth citizens in 1962, the families of those migrants already in the UK (who had mostly been male) began to arrive to join them. It had been assumed that the initial migrants would remain temporarily, but the arrival of their families led to permanent minority communities.

Falling and rising numbers

The government ended unrestricted immigration and started to focus on multicultural relations and community cohesion. Immigration levels fell and remained low until the mid-1990s, when net migration* was roughly 50,000 and ethnic minorities numbered about 4 million people, or 7% of the population.

After 1997, immigration increased dramatically. A net total of 4 million people came to Britain between 1997 and 2010, with 2.2 million granted settlement*, almost all of whom were non-EU nationals.

This was partly due to a sharp rise in asylum seekers and the falling costs of long distance travel, but it was also a product of four governmental decisions made between 1997 and 2003. The first was to repeal the primary purpose law, so it was easier to bring in foreign spouses. The second was to pass the Human Rights Act in 1998, which made deporting people much harder. The third was to issue student visas and work permits in much larger numbers than before.

Lots of Eastern Europeans came, but they often didn’t stay

The fourth and most significant decision was to open the UK labour market to eight former communist countries from Eastern and Central Europe in 2004, seven years before it was legally necessary. These new member states had substantially lower living standards than the UK. Within four years, 1.5 million East Europeans arrived in the UK. Net migration peaked at 255,000 in 2010. However, Eastern Europeans have proved much less inclined to settle in Britain than migrants* from the Commonwealth. Many early arrivals have since returned to their country of origin.

Points mean prizes

In an effort to reduce immigration, a points based system was introduced from 2008. Migrants are awarded points according to their age, experience and qualifications and must achieve a minimum number in order to be awarded a UK visa.

Immigration policy turns right

Opinions differ as to the benefits brought by migrants to the economy. However, the effect on the economy as a whole is not the same as the effect on an individual or local community. High immigration levels brought the issue to the forefront of British politics. Before 2000, fewer than 10% of people believed it was one of the most important issues facing the country. By 2007, nearly half thought it was. The result has been a shift to the right by all parties on immigration, and the rise of UKIP.

From 2010 onwards, government policy was to reduce net migration, with a target of ‘tens of thousands’ by 2015. This has led to numerous restrictions on immigration; capping the number of skilled non-EU workers permitted to enter the UK, preventing foreign students from remaining in Britain unless they have a firm job offer, introducing financial requirements for the settlement of foreign residents and spouses, preventing EU citizens from claiming benefits until they have been in the country for 3-6 months and requiring foreign residents to pay for certain NHS services. Illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who have been refused asylum now have restricted access to necessities such as accommodation, drivers licences, jobs and healthcare. Their rights to appeal against deportation have been limited.

However, despite non-EU immigration declining by a third, net migration has remained stubbornly high. It was in excess of 200,000 for the year ending September 2013. This is because emigration from the UK is now at its lowest level since 2001, while EU immigration increased by 27% in 2013.

Immigration and the UK’s membership of the EU

EU laws mean the British government has very few options to restrict immigration from member states. Unless they have a criminal conviction we must allow them to live here.

So long as they are seeking to support themselves, we must allow them comparable benefits to those of British nationals. Of course, we have the same right in their countries, but fewer of us leave the UK to use them.

As EU immigration to the UK has reached an all-time high, concerns have grown about freedom of movement and Britain’s continuing membership. David Cameron has promised to put this to a public referendum by 2017, following a renegotiation of Britain’s membership. However, it is unlikely that fundamental reforms to the free movement of labour will be possible.


Migrant – A foreign national who remains in Britain for a minimum of a year

Net Migration – The difference between the number of people who leave the UK and the number who arrive over a defined period of time, typically a year

Settlement – The process by which a foreign national with temporary leave to remain in the UK is granted permission to stay permanently. This currently requires a minimum of 5 years residency and that the individual pass tests on the English language and Life in the UK. From 2016, applicants will also need to have a minimum salary of £35,000 a year. Anyone granted settlement can apply to naturalise as a British citizen after a further 12 months.