Immigration fears are no reason to pull up the drawbridge

Immigration has long been at the forefront of the public's political concerns, with survey data and focus groups consistently reflecting a discomfort with the number of people arriving in the UK.

Such sentiments were behind a Conservative pledge to cut net immigration to under 100,000 per annum (originally made in the party's 2010 election manifesto), and inevitably played a part in last year's EU referendum.

A poll by YouGov, conducted in September of this year, showed that 91 per cent of Leave supporters "strongly support" or "tend to support" a significant reduction in immigration – contrasting with just 41 per cent of Remain voters who feel the same way. The average across respondents to the poll was 65 per cent.

Read more: Net migration fell to 230,000 in the year since Brexit vote

So should the Leave vote be interpreted as a demand for significantly lower immigration? Many politicians believe so, but this morning a Westminster think tank, Open Europe, argues that Brexit is "wrongly interpreted… as a mandate simply to pull up the drawbridge". It has carried out its own survey to reveal more detailed views on immigration, concluding that the government could work on a series of tough policies without dramatically cutting overall numbers.

For example, over half (56 per cent) of the public agreed with “allowing immigrants to come to the UK as long as there are controls to make sure they will contribute to our society, economy and way of life”, against 36 per cent who preferred simply “reducing the numbers of people coming into the UK”.

Furthermore, only 30 per cent of respondents believe the government's "tens of thousands" pledge is achievable. Perhaps for this reason, a hard cap is less popular than a system that "allows immigrants to come and work, but restricts their access to benefits and public services."

Read more: Never mind the Brexit: The OECD is bang on about immigration

The government's current stance on migration is inconsistent to say the least. The pledge to slash overall numbers – including students – remains stubbornly in place, yet ministers simultaneously seek to reassure business that access to workers will not be squeezed.

Today's survey data shows that immigration concerns are real, widespread, but also nuanced. The results should be studied by the government and used to inform a post-Brexit position designed to appease the public's fears without causing untimely damage to the economy's already fragile growth.

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